Criterion Sunday 340: Koko, le gorille qui parle (Koko: A Talking Gorilla, 1978)

This documentary, about a young woman (Penny Patterson at Stanford University) teaching a gorilla to speak using some apparent version of American Sign Language, is interesting partly in the ways in which it has dated in the interim forty-something years. I suspect that ideas of animal rights (if not personhood) have advanced somewhat, though these questions are explicitly addressed by the film’s narrator towards the end of this film. And as I in the audience am not a behavioural scientist, I can hardly assess the techniques that Patterson uses (I don’t know quite how robust her scientific methodology is), but the fascination is in watching her and Koko interact and drawing one’s own conclusions. That said, there are occasional talking heads which pop up to elucidate some of the questions demanded by watching this footage. Still, I end up feeling a bit bad for Koko: the lives of animals in zoos are too often poor, especially compared to their natural habitats, and Koko feels rather forced into this arrangement. The film leaves us with the question of whether it’s even fair to assess a gorilla in relation to human society; there is a sense of the “civilising” work of missionaries at times to the single-mindedness of Patterson teaching her sign language, and who can know whether Koko’s life was improved as a result. Still, she lived a long life — she only died two years ago in 2018 — and the film remains an interesting reflection on something about that life.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The only major extra is a 12-minute interview with the director from when the Criterion DVD was released, in the mid-2000s, in which he discusses the filming and some of the key members of the crew.
  • Otherwise, there are both (subtitled) French and English versions of the narration available, though all the footage is in English and (thankfully) isn’t dubbed.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Barbet Schroeder; Cinematographer Néstor Almendros; Length 80 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 27 July 2020.

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