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Koko: A Talking Gorilla (Barbet Schroeder, 1978)


With such an inherently interesting subject to work with, director Barbet Schroeder can’t do much to botch the success of his documentary Koko: A Talking Gorilla, even if he does precious little to bolster it. As a nonfiction film made in the 1970’s, Koko features none of the formal excitement that we’ve grown accustomed to in modern documentaries. The movie, which details the evolution of a young gorilla that has been taken out of its natural habitat and taught some rudimentary sign language, is simply constructed. Schroeder presents a series of interview subjects who debate Koko’s place in our society interspersed with long sequences in which we watch Koko and her trainer Penny at work. Some mild controversy, in which Koko’s ownership is disputed between her trainer and the zoo that legally owned her, is brushed upon, but largely this is a film free from drama. Furthermore, Schroeder addresses most of the philosophical concerns he has not with filmic form or clever cutting, but with overt, open-ended questioning delivered via a voiceover. The effect is somewhat artificial and distancing to a viewer who’s used to more skillful contemporary documentaries, which are frequently edited in a way that such questions gradually emerge and become unspoken epiphanies.


Of course, it’s somewhat shortsighted to hold against Koko alone the shortcomings that were almost inherent to the documentary form at the time of its conception. Indeed, much of the film’s value lies in the very fact that it was made at a time when the question of animal rights was still an issue that was being debated fiercely. As a document of its particular era, it is valuable, even if it is a little frustrating due to its small scope. Watching the extraordinary, belabored interactions between Penny and Koko, one becomes galvanized toward forming an opinion about whether or not Koko’s interactions qualify her as a sentient, self-aware being entitled to rights. Schroeder has truly located here an extreme case that tests previously held assumptions about the line between animal and person. Similarly, the entire film seems to hold around it the question of whether mankind is part of nature or somehow above it and entitled to exploit it. Curiously, Schroeder never invokes the Biblical implications of this debate, choosing to focus almost entirely on scientific and philosophical approaches to the question. Whatever its omissions, however, Koko: A Talking Gorilla is a worthy document of a living paradox. It confronts the viewer with several questions that cannot be easily answered, providing considerable food for thought.



Jeremy Heilman