With a narrative feature in mind, Iranian-born, French-based filmmaker Barbet Schroeder began his customary documentary research of Koko, an extraordinary gorilla. When he accepted that a film using Koko as the star player of an escape-to-Africa plot was wildly unfeasible, Schroeder decided to repurpose his research footage—shot by redoubtable cinematographer Néstor Almendros—into the documentary feature Koko: A Talking Gorilla.
Koko: A Talking Gorilla shines the spotlight on a remarkable, now world-famous primate. With a vocabulary of more than 300 words, Koko communicates with humans by way of American Sign Language, thanks to a graduate project that undeniably grew out of control. Under the supervision of Stanford neuroscience professor Dr. Carl Pribram, Dr. Penny Patterson arranged with the San Francisco Zoo to work with Koko and teach her sign language. Soon, Patterson, 27, had negotiated to take Koko, 6, from the zoo and to a trailer on the Stanford grounds. But when the zoo ultimately demanded its property back, Patterson refused, initiating a legal battle and the lingering threat of a police action.
Patterson's situation reflects the lack of forethought put into her project. While Patterson remains focused on the question "Can Koko understand abstract concepts?", Schroeder explores further pertinent questions before his film is over. What are the consequences of isolating a gorilla with—for all intents and purposes—a single human keeper? What effect will human dominance have on the beast's no-longer-natural development? And, to quote Schroeder, "Will Koko become the first white American Protestant gorilla?"
Schroeder's fascinating film (his first in America) primarily lets us observe the relationship between Koko and Patterson, whose platinum blonde hair cannot help but conjure Fay Wray. At first, the impassive observance of insistent sign-language lessons and activities may lead the viewer to the impression that Koko is being mistreated (eventually, we learn that Koko studies for, at most, a few hours each day). But Koko comes to resemble a special-education student, with a vocabulary comparable to that of an autistic child.
This anthropomorphization extends when we hear of Koko's grief for a dead kitten and see her express her preference for her old red sweater rather than a new yellow one. We also get to observe Koko's moods: playfulness, angry petulance, and sadness (a "grey day" resembling depression). But Patterson remains keenly aware of Koko's animal nature; should the keeper not maintain her dominance over her charge, the hulking Koko could turn on Patterson in anger. (The film too optimistically implies that Koko may soon mate with four-year-old gorilla Michael; time has supported the natural observation that gorillas only mate when females outnumber males.)
The overriding issue of Koko: A Talking Gorilla is that of "personality." Dr. Roger Fouts of the Institute for Primate Studies recognizes the personality of gorillas (more evidence for the somehow still-controversial theory of evolution), while San Francisco Zoo director Saul Kitchener opines, "You can't impose our value judgements on a gorilla." In his closing voice-over summation, Schroeder notes, "If someone killed Koko, legally it wouldn't be murder."
Such sprinkled comments provide enough intellectual provocation to begin debate, but the main course is Koko's wide-ranging behavior, demonstrating so much more than we customarily expect from a "non-person."
The disc also includes a "Barbet Schroeder Interview" (11:05), in which the filmmaker reveals the project's origins (Sam Shepard was scripting the planned fiction film to feature Koko) and the director's personal impressions of his simian subject. According to Schroeder, the gorilla was aware of the camera and, in a sense, played to it (a revelation that no doubt should have been noted in the film).
Unfortunately, Criterion supplies little in the way of modern-day context for the film. One can only speculate whether Criterion approached Patterson and Koko at The Gorilla Foundation, or whether an agreement could be reached between the parties. Given the title's low profile, licensing a later documentary about Koko was no doubt out of the question.
In its sixteen-page booklet, Criterion does provide "Barbet and Koko: An Equivocal Love Affair," author Gary Indiana's thoughtful new essay on the film and its subject, as well as 1978's "This Large, Black Animal," a pretentious but still welcome homage to Koko from French writer and filmmaker Marguerite Duras.
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