Movie made for chimpanzees

Primate Cinema: Apes as Family is a two channel video installation made by and for apes. The first channel is a 22 minute original movie I made expressly for chimpanzees at the Edinburgh Zoo. A primate drama, like many made for human audiences, the film follows a young female as she befriends a wild group of foreigners. The second channel, presented side by side with the movie, is a documentary of the chimps’ responses to the film, when it premiered at the zoo. The two channels create a prism for human beings to learn about the inner world of chimpanzees. By watching a movie through chimps’ eyes, we can imagine what they think and feel. Chimps are, after all, our closest relatives. Known for their complex social, cognitive and emotional lives, they also share with us a fascination with cinema.

Receiving a major arts award from the Wellcome Trust, and commissioned by The Arts Catalyst, I collaborated with comparative psychologist Dr. Sarah-Jane Vick to attempt to learn chimpanzee preferences for film. We worked with chimps at Edinburgh Zoo’s Budongo Trail, who voluntarily accessed a research pod, viewable by the public. Over several months, I chose a variety of cinematic genres and primate behaviors to show the chimps – animation to documentary, foraging behavior to displays of strength. Professor Vick and I videotaped and observed their reactions.

Vick’s analysis of the chimpanzees’ responses to different types of media was inconclusive, though she found that females preferred television more than males. During the testing phase, several chimps were interested in human actors in chimp suits having sex. Some chimps were lured to the television by Teletubbies and kettle drums. A male responded to watching other chimp’s “display behavior” by displaying himself – hooting and hitting the monitors.

Chimps in zoos vary a lot in their personalities as well as in their life histories: some were raised by chimps in the wild, some grew up in zoos, still others were raised by humans in labs. Those raised in the lab – the “Beekse Bergen group” – were more interested in staying in their indoor sleeping enclosure and were much more interested in television overall. As with humans, it would be difficult to appeal to the entire species with one film.

Primate Cinema: Apes as Family is an indoor wildlife documentary. The film follows the young female protagonist as she meets and befriends a foreign group of chimpanzees – much as female chimpanzees actually do in the wild (think Wizard of Oz for chimps). Designed to appeal to a primate audience, it depicts social dramas surrounding status, territory, sex and food. The chimpanzees in the film are played by actors in chimp costumes, one of which is especially realistic, through animatronic puppetry.

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