Koko: A Talking Gorilla Review

Koko, a mountain gorilla born in San Francisco Zoo in 1971, was brought to Stanford University for an experiment. Gorillas and other higher primates had learned to “speak” in a limited way beforehand, notably the 1960s experiments with the chimpanzee Washoe, but Dr Patterson went further: she taught Koko the basics of American Sign Language. Dr Patterson’s experiments remain controversial to this day: does Koko really “talk” using these signs or is she simply learning these gestures by rote? Dr Patterson thinks the former: according to her, Koko (who is still alive as I write this) has a vocabulary of 1000 signs and can understand over 2000 words of spoken English. In 1998 she and Dr Patterson took part in an online chat, a transcript which can be found here: here.. Koko has kept pet animals and in 2005 her self-portrait (a photo taken of herself in a mirror), used by National Geographic, was selected as one of the top forty magazine covers of the last forty years.

Barbet Schroeder’s original intention was to make a fictional feature, written by Sam Shepard and produced by Saul Zaentz. Koko would star, and at the end of the film “return to the wild”. The documentary footage of Koko was intended to convince investors that the film could be made. However, the fictional film proved very difficult to make – especially obtaining permissions for Koko’s use from both Dr Patterson and the Zoo which owned her. However, when the first rushes were shown, Schroeder was so taken by them that he changed his plans and made a documentary instead. We see the growing bond between the young scientist (Patterson was just twenty-eight at the time) and the young gorilla. Koko befriends a younger gorilla called Michael (who himself knew a few words), but is unwilling to mate with him: gorilla mating is only possible when females outnumber males. Finally, we see Koko learning to use a computer.

Koko: A Talking Gorilla is a fascinating, and at times troubling film that remains relevant to this day. It asks questions as to what rights animals have and humans have to use and exploit them, and what separates humans from the higher apes. Some interviewees, like the head of San Francisco Zoo, suggest that Koko would be better in a more “natural” environment such as the zoo she was born and brought up in. Schroeder’s film does not draw any conclusions, but poses the questions for us.

Koko was shot in 16mm by Nestor Almendros under quite difficult conditions: Koko’s cage was so cramped that with Koko and Dr Patterson both in it there was only room for Almendros. He shot with a wide lens to keep everything in focus. Lighting was also difficult, particularly balancing Koko (dark-furred) with Dr Patterson (blonde and fair-skinned). But the results speak for themselves, and show why Almendros, even on a low-budget documentary like this, was one of the world’s great cameramen. The film is naturally quite grainy, and one section shows evidence of damage in the form of tramlines, which were presumably impossible to remove. Also, some of the footage seems a little faded. The DVD transfer is in 4:3 with no anamorphic enhancement necessary.

The soundtrack is the original mono. The alternative French track refers to the narration only: on both soundtracks the people onscreen all speak English. Subtitles in both languages are provided. There are thirteen chapter stops. The DVD is encoded for Region 1 only.

This is not one of Criterion’s most extras-packed DVD. On the disc itself, is a new interview with Schroeder, who looks back at the film after thirty years and finds himself in love with Koko yet again. He talks about the film came together – Koko even learned to start the motor on the camera.

That’s it for the disc, but as usual Criterion provide us with a booklet worth reading. Along with a chapter list, film and DVD credits, this contains two essays. “Barbet and Koko: An Equivocal Love Affair” is an excellent piece by Gary Indiana. “This Large, Black Animal” by Marguerite Duras is a pretentious article which calls Koko “Africa” and tries to equate Koko’s treatment with racism.

Alongside his fiction features Barbet Schroeder has shown himself a fine documentarian, using much the same methods he used in theotherwise very different study of Idi Amin he had made a year earlier. Koko: A Talking Gorilla only has a small number of extras, but as ever they are well-chosen ones.

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