Koko: A Talking Gorilla

Koko: A Talking Gorilla
(Koko, le gorille qui parle)
Director: Barbet Schroeder
Features: Koko, Francine “Penny” Patterson, Saul Kitchener, Carl Pribram, Roger Fouts
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1978
Country: France
Koko: A Talking Gorilla: Criterion Collection DVD
Koko: A Talking GorillaKoko: A Talking Gorilla is a slim, but intriguing documentary about a gorilla who can literally “talk.” Koko, a gorilla who was six years old at the time the film was made in 1977, had been taken from the San Francisco Zoo and was being taught how to communicate with American sign language by researchers from Stanford University. By the time French director Barbet Schroeder’s cameras captured Koko and her primary teacher, Penny Patterson, the great ape already knew several hundred words and had a surprisingly robust ability to convey thoughts, feelings, and desires.

The central theme of the film, which is stated rather blatantly and clumsily in the final minutes despite having been made clear throughout the previous 75 minutes, is a crucial question to anyone: What is the dividing line between humans and animals? We tend to think of two separate planes of existence, but what Koko makes abundantly clear is that gorillas have much more in common with us than we might like to think. Complex language has always been a convenient dividing line between the human and the animal kingdoms, so what does it mean when a “dumb” animal can speak our language, even if it is in the limited range of a four-year-old? Yet, even with that qualifier, it is clear that Koko can and does communicate, not just replicate (two different interviews stress the fact that Koko and other simians who can sign have created compound words on their own).

These questions are raised much better simply in the act of watching Penny and Koko interact. Schroeder was allowed direct access to their daily activities for several days, ostensibly because he was collecting research footage for what was originally planned to be a fictionalized feature film (that fell through and Schroeder assembled his footage into a documentary instead). We see Penny and Koko’s training sessions, playtime, and strangely moving bonding moments.

It becomes quickly evident that they have a relationship of profound depth, one that is characterized by affection and respect and is sometimes tested by pettiness and irritability. Koko may be one of the most huggable simians to ever grace a documentary, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have her moments of anger and childishness. Yet, there is a real sweetness to their interactions, and it won’t surprise anyone to learn that, almost 30 years later, Penny and Koko are still working together under the Gorilla Foundation, which Penny founded in the mid-1970s to promote the protection of the great apes.

The scenes of Penny and Koko working together are augmented by direct interviews with Penny and several other psychologist-researchers, including Dr. Carl Pribram, a professor of neuroscience at Stanford and Penny’s mentor/supervisor, and Dr. Roger Fouts, a psychologist at the Institute for Primate Studies in Oklahoma who formerly worked with Allen and Beatrice Gardner, the researchers who first attempted to teach a chimpanzee to sign.

The duty of playing the film’s heavy is left to poor Saul Kitchener, the director of the San Francisco Zoo whose frumpy discomfort in front of the camera does nothing to help his argument that Koko needs to be returned to the zoo. Yet, Kitchner’s argument--that perhaps Koko is being “made human” against her natural animal will, and teaching her sign language is just an exaggerated literalization of human-centered anthropomorphism--is worth considering, and it’s too bad the filmmakers couldn’t have found a more engaging proponent.

Koko: A Talking Gorilla Criterion Collection Director-Approved Special Edition DVD

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
  • English Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
  • French Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
  • Subtitles English
  • Video interview with director Barbet Schroeder
  • Essay by critic Gary Indiana
  • Essay by Marguerite Duras
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJuly 11, 2006

    The high-definition transfer was made from a 35mm internegative and digitally restored. The liner notes don’t include the fact that the film was originally shot in 16mm, so using the 35mm blow-up has resulted in some additional grain. The image looks great, however, for its age. Colors are slightly on the dull side and the grain limits some of the detail, but this is inherent to the source material. The image is thoroughly clean, with only the slightest traces of wear. The monaural English soundtrack is fine throughout, and there is also an optional French-language track (since all the interviews were conduced in the English, only the sporadic voice-over narration changes to French).
    Criterion is usually pretty good about labeling their discs honestly, but to call their DVD of Koko: A Talking Gorilla a “Special Edition,” as it does on the back of the cover, is really pushing it. The only supplement on the disc itself is a new 10-minute interview with director Barbet Schroeder, in which he reminisces fondly about working with Koko and discusses the project’s origins as a fictional film. Since Koko is still alive and Dr. Francine “Penny” Patterson is still hard at work with the foundation she helped create in order to study Koko, it seems like a major opportunity was lost to put the film in perspective and see how the participants are doing in the present day. I, for one, would have loved to have heard Dr. Patterson’s thoughts on the film from the vantage point of 2006.

    Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3)

    James Kendrick

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