Chimpanzees: An Unnatural History
Interview: Filmmaker Allison Argo

Allison Argo is an award-winning filmmaker and the writer, director, producer and narrator of Chimpanzees: An Unnatural History. Her previous film for NATURE, The Urban Elephant, won Emmy awards for Outstanding Cultural or Informational Program and Outstanding Achievement in Directing. Below, Argo shares some thoughts on the making of Chimpanzees: An Unnatural History.

Q: How did the idea for Chimpanzees: An Unnatural History come about?

A: The idea grew out of a prior film that I had made for NATURE called Wisdom of the Wild. One of the segments in that film dealt with chimpanzees being retired from a laboratory, but it was just the tip of the iceberg. Both Fred Kaufman [NATURE's executive producer] and I were very moved by the story of chimps that have been used in research and entertainment, and we realized it was a really rich and complex story. The contrast between chimpanzees in the wild using medicinal plants to self-medicate, as we showed in Wisdom of the Wild, and then living in a very unnatural situation was very dramatic.

I should say too that especially now, after having immersed myself for over two years in the world of captive chimpanzees, it is so moving to think back on my experiences of seeing chimps in the wild in Tanzania. It gave me such a sense of well-being to witness them living in family groups. I’ll never forget watching them on numerous afternoons, just lying in a little patch of sun on the forest floor, having a big group of adults and youngsters groom and watching them forage. They seemed very much at peace. And that was, again, such a contrast to what we’ve done with chimpanzees in our society

Q: You are the writer, director, producer and narrator of the film. Why did you choose to assume all those roles?

A: It’s a very personal choice that I participate in so many facets of the film. It’s a much richer, deeper experience for me. It gives me huge gratification. I love writing the script and I love reading the words that I’ve written. At the end of making the film, it’s very cathartic. I usually have a big cry. And yes, there are huge challenges also. It’s very lonely in some ways. But also one of the things that I absolutely love about documentary filmmaking is that we work as a team. It’s really one big creative effort. I really rely on the people that I work with – the wonderful cinematographers, my associate producer who is just the best researcher in the world. And of course the NATURE team. I have gotten such amazing support from them.

Q: Chimpanzees is a very poignant film, and also presents a strong point of view. Do you think a documentary should seek to sway public opinion, and is that something you aim for with your films?

A: What I sought to do with this film is to provoke thought, and encourage people to ask more questions, instead of just accept the status quo. If any documentary filmmaker is to be completely honest, everything’s subjective because you choose when to roll the camera, for example, and when to stop the camera. You choose where to point the lens. You choose which locations to go to. So it never can be completely objective, though we all want to be as objective as we can as documentary filmmakers.

My mantra throughout the whole film was “just the facts.” Just the facts, and don’t comment on it. Don’t say, “And isn’t this sad, or isn’t this terrible.” Because I think it’s more respectful of the audience if you can present the stories and just say, “You decide for yourself.” For example, I don’t say, “And Billy Jo [a chimpanzee] was tortured in the laboratory.” I never say something like that. But Gloria goes through his records. “Punch biopsy.” “Bone marrow transplant.” And you can decide if you think that that would be a positive or a negative experience for a chimpanzee. So I tried really hard not to comment emotionally, but I can’t hide the fact that in general I think we have treated chimpanzees very poorly in our society.

Q: Were you surprised by anything during the making of the film?

A: Definitely. I was amazed by how truly communicative chimpanzees are. Obviously with one another they’re extremely communicative. But what I mean is how easy it is for human beings, if you just open yourself a little bit, to communicate with them, and how they can so easily communicate with us. I guess it’s because we share so much genetic material, but also I think it’s a certain similar kind of intelligence that we share.

Q: Do you have any anecdotes from making the film you’d like to share?

A: Up at Fauna Foundation [outside Montreal], a female chimpanzee named Pepper was grooming my arm and she clearly wanted me to take my watch off because it was in the way. So I took my watch off and she had it so fast! It was in the cage, and I thought, “Oh well, that’s the end of the watch. I really liked that watch, too.” She grasped it in her foot, since they can use their feet like hands. So she held it in her foot and groomed me for about 10 minutes. And then when she was finished, she very gently took it out of her foot and handed it out to me. And I was just amazed. It was so considerate, sensitive. She understood that it was something that was mine, something that I liked.

Q: Did you have trouble getting people from the government to talk on camera for the film?

A: Yes. I tried to call a higher-up person at the NIH who deals with chimpanzee issues, and I was immediately blocked and sent to the P.R. department. I just wanted to get his point of view, to start there. But I was told “No, you have to go through us.” So I sent in some of my films and told them what the film was about. And about a month later, they basically said, “Sorry, we’re just too busy right now. No one can talk to you.” We also contacted all of the laboratories that are still actively using chimpanzees and were told that we couldn’t film within the labs. We’d then ask, “Can we interview one of your scientists?” And they all said no.

Q: Do you think the film suffered at all for their absence, or did you consciously try and make up for it in other ways?

A: It’s a good question. I was really upset that I wouldn’t have that balance. But then I realized, I’m making a documentary and that’s the reality of it. That is the balance. I couldn’t speak for them myself. We were allowed no information, and that became a statement in itself. I did present that there is an ongoing debate about the use of chimpanzees, and we hear from scientists on both sides of the fence.

  • Aaron

    It is truly amazing the extremes in our own human behavior. As you watch the documentary you find yourself ashamed of humans and also incredibly proud and inspired by the people who dedicate there lives to make up for our lack of compassion as a species. To see Thomas in the tree overlooking his new “empire” for the first time in decades was just beautiful. I watch a lot of nature programs, and this one was definitely one of my favorites. Keep up the great work!!

  • William Roe

    This program moved me in ways I have very rarely felt in my life. I had to watch it twice to make sure I was not missing anything, GOD bless the people that are taking care of these animals that have suffered for so long. Thanks for getting the word out!!!!!

  • Wanda P.

    As I watched the video, I cried for these chimpanzees, the ones before them, and the ones that will go where they have been……
    I can’t accept using them for invasive research, it was, is, selfish and irresponsible on the part of researchers to continue using and abusing Chimpanzees…..
    Please write all the representatives in your state, and other members of Congress, tell them you are against the use of Great Apes in research….

  • Shaaron Murphy

    As others have said, this broke my heart. I cried through most of the show. Both for sadness and at last for joy. This film needs to be seen by the members of Congress in order to pass bills to prevent this cruelty. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for your hard work and big heart in making this important film. These scientists are cowards, they use these animals with little concern for them and then they hide. I don’t know how they sleep at night. These are not the only ones, other species are used as often and suffer as greatly. This, however, is a good place to start as there is more empathy. Thank you.

  • Michele Argo

    I sure hope ALL of the people in this spectacular and moving episode are aware of the Charla Nash case, in which a pet chimpanzee tore off someone’s face and hands. They are much stronger than humans. We cannot forget that. Charla is awaiting a face transplant.

  • Gloria C.

    I was so moved by this documentary. When Gloria (the woman at the chimp rescue site near Montreal) cried with joy at the sight of Thomas climbing the tree, I found tears creeping out the corners of my eyes, too. These women are shining examples of the goodness of humanity, rescuing the chimps and creating islands for them. The chimps are so wonderful, and it is despicable that they have been abused and tortured for so long. Thank you, PBS, for a great nature documentary. I watch Nature regularly, but this episode moved as no other has.

  • Peter

    Really is a moral dilemma. We cannot keep humans from being inhumane to either people or wildlife. That a sophisticated society cannot deisgn laws to protect animals from mismanagement and practices such as these just shows how unsophistated our thought processes are if there is not a financial windlfall on the back end of that decision. Yes, drug companies, labs, animal dealers and even circuses all profit from the research which led to the use of chimpanzees and other primates.

  • Meridith

    Thank you for choosing to use your film making skills to bring the plight of these animals to our attention. And for also bringing to our attention the wonderful people who give so much to rescue and care for them. When you and they have done so much, hopefully others who are moved by this issue will chose to write a check in gratitude.

  • Kris

    I was so moved by your film and at the same time disgusted at our Government for allowing this to happen and still letting it go on. My friend could not even sit and watch as it upset him so much. Anyone involved in such inhumanity to another living being should be totally ashamed. It is one thing to try and help the human race but to destroy another life to do this, it is not worth the price.

  • Karen Williams

    I want to thank the filmmaker and the people who have made sanctuaries for the chimps shown in this incredible documentary. I just happened to flip to Channel 13 and was immediately caught up in this story. I wept. I had no idea that people continue to be so cruel to other species. It was shocking and so terribly sad. I would like to get links to the websites of the sanctuaries & learn more.

  • keith helmke

    How can I help your cause? Where can I donate some money to you?

  • Rosemary Webster

    I was so moved and taken by your film on these chimpanzees. I even cried for them as how they were used for research, and entertainment purposes. I don’t believe that they deserve this type of life to be used this way. I feel, as I’m sure others, that chimpanzees should be in their natural habitat living their lives as they are meant to do. It saddens me that the US government still lets this go on, and that our tax dollars even support this research. Can the government put an end to this? I see other animal welfare leagues fight to put an end to this research on chimpanzees. It is truly disheartening that this still goes on. This film sure brought light into the treatment of these chimpanzees. I certainly would like to help these animals. Do any of the chimpanzee sanctuaries offer adopting or sponsoring an animal? I would like to help one of these animals out and hopefully the ones in sanctuaries can live out their live in peace, and pray many more are released from research labs, and brought to sanctuaries. Thank you for your enlightened film.

  • Lori Wiltscheck

    Beautiful film. For any viewers who are interested, the dispute over the use of monkeys for biomedical research is now a hot issue in Madison, Wisconsin. See and also for more information. There are nearly 10,000 monkeys being used for biomedical and other research in Madison, dubbed “The monkey experiment capital of the world.” A large number at the notorious Covance, and several thousand at the UW Madison, 2500 of whom have had portions of their skulls removed and have been fitted with headcaps and implanted with electrodes. Lab deaths have involved being burned in their cages during cage washing with scalding hot water, and other horrific suffering. Heaven help us all.

  • Kim

    I laughed, cried , became mad, shocked. I am sad that all these years they have no life. Can we show this in 8th grade? Start the process make young people aware. What can we do to help?

  • Michael Benzow

    I have to agree with Kim I did the same more or less cried at the distress I saw through their eyes. Its just crazy to think we as a race of intelligent beings do this to our relatives. We all should take a minute to think about what we are doing to this world and see that we do have an impact, and can still help it to progress and not regress.

  • Jolynn

    This was a wonderful, emotional documentary. It truly brought home the plight of these Chimps. They’re stories are so sad, yet in the end, so hopeful.

    Let us not forget the other animals used in lab research. What about their stories, what about their “happy endings”? Dogs, cats, rabbits, monkeys, rats, mice, and many more. All tortured and abused in the name of research. Did you know the government reserves the right to walk into any humane society and take any companion pet they like to be used in research? The shelters do not like it, but they have no choice. These animals, like the Chimpanzee, need our help too.

    Please, do not buy products tested on animals. Please, write to your state representative, congressman, senator, and ask for needless animal testing to stop.

  • Gigi

    I cried & cried both times I watched this. I am so disgusted by the way people act. I was before watching & now even more! It was heart wrenching to see them get so excited by such a little thing like Dairy Queen or a beaded necklace. It took so little to put a smile on their sad little faces. I couldn’t believe how easy it seemed for R. Heath to walk away from Billy Jo AGAIN. It obviously wasn’t easy for Billy Jo AGAIN. So so so sad….

  • Cynthia

    Thank you for the brave and wonderful work you are doing. You truly have a gift, not only to make a film, but to touch people deeply and that is so important. I had seen your “Urban Elephant” film several times (and absolutely loved it) and thought I recognized your voice as the narrator of this film. The scene where Billy Jo’s former owner came to see him and then left after a few minutes was just devastating. Man’s inhumanity to man is legendary, but I hope we as a society are finally waking up to man’s inhumanity to animals, wild and domesticated, thanks to people like you. Please keep doing this.

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