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While Marvel's The Avengers is tentpole cinema's paean to superhero glory, DisneyNature salutes a different sort of heroics through the true primate story told in Chimpanzee.
British directors/producers Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield have fashioned this rousing drama out of three hard years worth of collected footage of our primate cousins in action.
From hundreds of hours of digitally captured live action they have culled a powerful chronicle of primate society, including the accidental adoption of a young orphaned chimp by the alpha male of his pack. An unheard of situation in the annals of primate research, this remarkable event forms the backbone of a narrative that both reveals much about chimpanzee social life and provides a metaphor humanity.
This material was in capable hands for veteran nature documentarians Fotherfill and Linfield, who previously helmed such films as African Cats, Earth and Frozen Planet -- not to mention the BBC juggernaut Planet Earth.
Q: How did you work out which task each one of you handled in making this film?
AF: It's an organic process, actually. I'd worked with chimpanzees 25 years ago, so I started it off. Mark's a real primate expert as well, and it was very much a 50/50 split. Although I have to say, Mark is quite a lot more technically capable than I, so he took more of the lead with the camera side of things. But we have worked together a lot... including on the TV series Planet Earth.
ML: Alastair's got far better political skills to deal with tricky people.
AF: One of the things about chimpanzees is that in the wild most run from you straight away, so you have to work with what's called habituated chimpanzees. And these are chimpanzees where scientists like Jane Goodall in Gombe Stream in Tanzania, and, in our case, Christophe Boesch in the Ivory Coast have worked with these chimpanzees for literally 30 years. Originally they'd go out in the forest day after day after day and wouldn't see anything.
They'd hear frightened chimpanzees and then gradually the chimpanzees would get used to the people there. Now you can sit as close as we are to each other and they're completely relaxed and ignore you. It’s wonderful and really special.
Q: It seems impossible to script a story like this, yet it’s amazing how it turned out. How did this story come about?
ML: Of course it's not entirely true that we didn't have a script, because you'd be doing really well to get a feature film commissioned by Disney if you don't have any kind of a script. It’s just that the script went in the bin. There was a 60- 70-page traditional Hollywood script, and it was made the way we make most wildlife film scripts.
Through our research and collaboration with scientists, we put together all the cool things that we know chimpanzees do and put them into an order that made sense. And we removed things that we thought ha no chance of being filmed.
Then we fiddled around with it. But in reality, you get there and of course the chimpanzees haven't read the script. Day after day they might not even turn up. And you hope -- and this is always the way it is to some extent -- that they'll do some interesting things that you didn't put in the script.
Probably some of the things that you thought were easy you won't ever see. In this case we were incredibly lucky because the real story that unfolded in front of us was way better than the script [we did].
AF: We deliberately chose to follow a young baby chimp because we knew they're very, very cute. But during the first five years of a chimpanzee's life, 50% of those chimps die. We didn't want Oscar's mother to die; that was a real, real problem for us. She was killed by a leopard about two years into the filming and at that stage we thought the film was over.
We genuinely thought that, because Disney movies need a happy ending, so we were really worried. Then the extraordinary adoption by alpha male Freddy happened. In 30 years the scientists hadn’t seen anything quite like that and it's certainly has never been filmed before.
ML: We were quite lucky -- it was probably just short of three years. Had he been orphaned when he was two years old, he probably would have died because they're very reliant on their mother's milk. Freddy was able to give him normal food that he could collect in the forest, but were he just two that might not be enough. Whereas at about three or just short of three, Freddy was able to give Oscar just enough to keep him going.
Q: How many hours were you there and how many hours did you actually shoot in terms of footage?
AF: We were there for about three and a half years. It was an unbelievably difficult place to work because the rainforest is very, very dark and chimpanzees are obviously very dark animals. There’s 100% humidity and the cameras were heavy. Mark and I reckoned it was the hardest challenge that we ever asked a cameraman to do. Martin said if he got one shot in a day he was pleased. It was really like that.
One thing we've been trying to do with DisneyNature is not make documentaries. We've tried to make movies that really work in the way that movies are supposed to work. We have stories and engaging characters. The fact that they're chimpanzees is wonderful, but they've got to work as characters. And with Chimpanzee, more than even African Cats, we really had to get it to work.
ML: And that's down to the chimpanzees. What's so incredible about the chimpanzees is that so much of their lives are mirrored in our lives. We actually joked when we first arrived at the location, obviously Alastair's been there previously, but when we went there for a reconnaissance trip four years ago we sat down with researchers and they'd just come back from a day in the forest and were all talking about these chimpanzees like they were human characters.
And we'd just thought they'd been in the forest too long, but within a few weeks we were doing the same thing. You can't help yourself. Really the kind of relationships they have with each other, the dramas that go on between them...
Q: How do you explain this miracle between Oscar and Freddy?
AF: Nobody can really explain it. The scientists actually did a genetic test and discovered that, as they suspected, they're not at all related. And I think the only thing you can think is that male chimpanzees do have a feminine side to them.
ML: The best way to answer that surely is, Why do humans adopt? -- and actually even humans who have children. Couples will adopt, so why? If you can answer that question, I think you've answered our question about chimpanzees, because we are so similar.
AF: In the past scientists have seen female chimpanzees that don't have their own young adopt other babies, and sometimes an older brother will adopt a younger brother when the mother is lost. But it's almost never, I think maybe on one other occasion, for a big adult male.
And particularly the alpha, because he has a real big role in chimpanzee society. He has to lead the guys against their rivals, and as you've seen in the movie, chimpanzees don't live on their own; they have other groups nearby. And our particular group, unfortunately, had a particularly powerful group nearby called Scar and his big team of males. They were a real threat to Freddy and Oscar and Isha. We were really worried all the way through the filming.
ML: Another thing worth saying on the adoption is that there's a scientific study going on -- from the genetic analysis of the feces, if you must know -- showing that Freddy and Oscar are not related. Because it could be that Freddy was actually Oscar's father, being the alpha male of the group and all the rest of it. But we know for certain that they're not. So it really is an act of altruism.
Q: Could you tell the difference between each of the chimps?
AF: You can recognize their faces.
Q: Scar was obvious.
AF: Scar was obvious. It takes a bit more time. But their faces are as distinctly different as human faces. And their character as well, actually. When we first started we knew we were to follow a mother and a baby, and the first mother we went with was very relaxed, but she turned out to be camera shy.
Every time the cameraman went close, she'd just look away from the camera and we thought this isn't going to work. So luckily we chose Isha, who chose to be a really relaxed girl. She was a lovely girl.
Q: Why didn't you say that a leopard killed the mother instead of implying that it was from the chimp attack?
ML: Why didn't we?
AF: Basically what happened was that – this is the true thing that happened – Isha was separated from the group, and we think she was killed by a leopard. We never filmed it. Basically what happened is there was the battle and then the next day there was Oscar on his own and Isha had disappeared.
And we said to the scientist, "What's happened?" and he said, "Well, she's almost certainly been killed by a leopard," which is why we chose to tell that story in the movie.
Q: You left it ambiguous. With these wonderful stories, they always have one animal being killed and here as well, though you didn't see it being torn to bits. Why does an animal have to die? Kids still talk about their traumatic experience of seeing Bambi's mother being killed.
AF: That's the truth in nature.
ML: Yes, and we set out to tell the story of Oscar's life. Clearly the thing that shaped it was the death of his mother; that wasn't our fault. As much as we wanted a good story, we didn't do her in.
AF: But you make a very good point, and I think the important thing is these movies are for every age group. We want children to come with their parents.
It's not just a kid's movie, but we do want families to come. So why dwell on it? Who wants to see a leopard rip up a chimpanzee? There are some people who really hate it. And of course Bambi is a terribly sad story, but my God, it's a good story.
Q: Is that was a Disney rule; you've got to have one.
AF: We need to make a movie about vegetarians.
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