Koko: A Talking Gorilla
July 12, 2006
Gorillas in the Mist (1988), the biography of Dian Fossey and her struggle to study and protect gorillas, was an important film in championing primate studies. In 1978, filmmaker Barbet Schroeder documented Dr. Francine “Penny” Patterson’s attempt to teach Koko, a gorilla living in the San Francisco Zoo, to communicate through American Sign Language. In what was at the time a controversial move, she took Koko to nearby Stanford University to conduct these studies. The zoo believed that Koko should live in “the wilds” while Patterson believed that Koko should be “humanized.”
One of the questions this documentary raises early on is, is this gorilla actually learning how to communicate through sign language or simply mimicking her human teachers? Patterson says that Koko has made significant advances like being able to sign simultaneously, something that humans rarely do. Koko is also able to create compound words and is even able to lie when she does something wrong.
Schroeder’s footage of Koko demonstrates that she has a surprising amount of intelligence and interacts with her human teachers quite well. The documentary also raises the issue of Patterson’s obsessive nature. She has been working on this project for five years (at the point in which this doc had been shot) without a single vacation. What kind of objectivity can she have? What kind of toll does this kind of dedication take on her personal life? Schroeder never addresses this explicitly but it is something that sits in the back of your mind as you watch her act as mother to Koko.
Koko seems to recognize and understand words and identify them with their corresponding image on a simple level. One begins to wonder what kind of life Koko has. We only see footage of the gorilla being constantly tested but when is she able to just be herself? That being said, she comes across as a beautiful creature with an endearing, inquisitive nature. She is compassionate even having a baby doll that she plays with. Koko is also, in some respects, like a little child complete with temper tantrums and acts out when she’s being bad.
The film treads into slightly uncomfortable territory when we see Patterson’s attempts to teach Koko how to apply make-up. It seems slightly demeaning as the gorilla doesn’t quite grasp the concept and looks a little silly in the process. The doctor even laughs at her which, again, makes you question her objectivity. There’s no doubt that Patterson’s intentions aren’t altruistic or noble but as Gary Indiana’s essay (included with the DVD) points out, “I fear it may, in time, prove a quixotic one, a worthy bulwark against inevitable extinction.”
Indiana also raises an interesting point that, over the years, Koko has become so dependent on Patterson that what would happen if she was unable to interact with her? And could Koko survive outside of this rarified atmosphere if forced to? While her advances are important they avoid the larger issue of the impending extinction of gorillas around the world. Patterson has used Koko’s “celebrity status” to raise funding for a sanctuary in Hawaii (which is nearing completion after all these years) but is it too little too late?
The only extra is an interview with director Barbet Schroeder. He talks about how he heard of Koko and was drawn to the conflict between Patterson and the zoo. Schroeder originally envisioned a fictional film with a gorilla escaping from a United States zoo to Africa with the help of a human trainer. In preparation, he shot footage of Koko and decided that her work with Patterson was much more compelling and interesting. This is a good interview as the veteran filmmaker reflects on his documentary after all these years.
The lack of extras is disappointing especially coming from the folks at Criterion. Ideally, a featurette on what has happened to Koko in the past 25 years would have been nice.