Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.
Original title: Koko: Le Gorille Qui Parle
France, 1978. Institut National de L’Audiovisuel, Les Films du Losange. Cinematography by Nestor Almendros. Produced by Margaret Menegoz. Music by Guta Cattoni, Maris Embiricos. Film Editing by Dominique Auvray, Denise de Casabianca.
Barbet Schroeder’s fascinating documentary follows the life of a gorilla who communicates through sign language, and her interactions with Penny Patterson, the researcher who taught her to do so. Magnificent footage captures the development of the animal’s language skills, including the eventual development of her ability to understand English without the benefit of signs. Koko challenges notions of an unfeeling animal underclass, even when we take into account the awareness already associated with primates, but she also raises other questions that make the situation complicated: despite the fact that we know that Koko experiences emotions on par with humans (including humour, the ultimate test of intelligence), she is still an animal in a cage and we are not likely to feel comfortable with her in any other capacity. She isn’t quite a citizen but now, thanks to her connection with her human counterparts, she isn’t a zoo creature either. Schroeder wisely raises these themes without making any moralizing pronouncements about them, focusing instead on the highly charismatic Dr. Patterson, who makes a wonderful interview subject, and her even more bewitching project.