At the heart of the documentary is an inquiry into what constitutes "personhood."

csjlong's picture

One of the central tenets of direct cinema (sometimes called cinema verité in America) was that reality, and therefore truth, could be directly accessed simply by recording it. Just point the camera at "reality" and there you have it: the truth in all its unmediated glory. To be fair, such grandiose claims were seldom made by direct cinema filmmakers themselves – Frederick Wiseman actually referred to his movies as "reality fictions" – but the belief persisted that the ideal documentarian should interfere as little as possible, and simply let reality (as seen through the lens) speak for itself. This approach has fallen out of favor since its zenith in the 60s and early 70s, mostly due to skepticism about such truth claims. Errol Morris states his objections bluntly: "It's the metaphysical claim – the idea that style guarantees truth – which I find repellent."

"Repellent." That's a mighty strong word, but there are many reasons to share Morris' skepticism, chief among them being the way that the concepts of reality and truth can become so easily conflated. Reality is inherently ambiguous. It is a stream of information that we sift through our perceptual filters, and which we subsequently interpret in order to make meaning of it. The raw data itself is too noisy, too messy, and too damned overwhelming to be of any use to us until we run it all through that pattern recognition device we call a brain, which explains why two people can witness the same event, yet arrive at completely different conclusions about what they actually saw (same reality, different "truths"). This sense of ambiguity is poignantly captures in Barbet Schroeder's Rorschach blot of a documentary, "Koko: A Talking Gorilla" (1978).

Koko is a young gorilla (about six when we meet her) who has been taught American Sign Language (ASL) since she was an infant. Her trainer and surrogate mother, Penny Patterson, a Stanford-educated psychologist, grills her daily on her vocabulary and her behavior. According to Patterson, Koko knows over 200 words in ASL, and can recognize at least twice as many. She also understands spoken English, which is demonstrated in an early scene when Penny asks Koko to point to various body parts.

That Koko understands some words and came make some signs is not in dispute, but exactly how much she understands remains in question. Her handlers emphasize that she demonstrates insight and can form new concepts. Once when Koko saw a ring on someone's finger, she described it with two other signs she knew: "finger bracelet." On the other hand, there are clearly moments when Koko's trainers over-interpret her attempts at language. Penny trains Koko to use a modified computer keyboard to "speak" English. When she asks Koko to say Apple, Koko presses the button for "more" which a smiling Penny interprets as "more apple." Only after Penny points to the "more" key repeatedly does Koko finally press it.

Darwin observed that many animals engaged in "language-like" behavior, but "language-like" is not the same thing as "language." Is Koko just performing learned behavior to get rewards (food) or is she genuinely communicating with humans? The longer we watch Koko, the less certain we become. We can stare into her impenetrable eyes forever and not know what Koko is thinking; we can only see the surface, the form, and thus can only guess about what secrets lie below. But that's precisely what makes Koko such a fascinating subject; a mystery is always more compelling than a solution.

Different viewers can justifiably arrive at opposite conclusions on the matter (darn that ambiguity), and the debate still rages today. In 1998, Koko participated in a controversial Internet chat in which she allegedly answered questions (through her interpreters, of course) from users. Skeptics labeled the chat a farce, and "Time" magazine even described it as a "Dada exercise," in reference of the vague, incoherent responses Koko gave which Penny Patterson then generously interpreted, such as in this example:

Question: Do you like to chat with people?
Koko signs: Fine nipple.
Patterson explains: Nipple rhymes with people, she doesn't sign people per se, she was trying to do a "sounds like..."

A stretch, to say the least. Suffice it to say, the debate is no closer to being resolved today than it was when the documentary was released in 1978, which I suppose is reason enough to be skeptical.

(You can find a more detailed discussion of the issue in this CSICOP article.)

Schroeder shoots in an observational style, mostly recording Penny and Koko's training sessions, but "Koko: A Talking Gorilla" is definitely not direct cinema. A narrator's (Michael Graham) clinical observations often serve as wry counterpoints or philosophical reflections, inviting the viewer to constantly question what he or she is watching. The film's razor-sharp editing adds a dose of wit as well: an early cut in the film juxtaposes the African forest with San Francisco, an area which, as the narrator informs us, used to be covered by forest as well. The only evidence we see of this now is two redwood trees flanking a Chevron station just down the street from a McDonald's; this constitutes Koko's new "cultural environment." The camera can show us the "reality" of Koko, but by "interfering" with the events depicted in the documentary (use of narration, ironic editing, etc.) Schroeder facilitates a deeper consideration of the "truth" at hand, even if he doesn't offer any definitive answers.

Schroeder isn't just interested in assessing Koko's capacity for language acquisition. At the heart of the documentary is an inquiry into what constitutes "personhood." At one point the narrator coolly observes that if Koko was killed, it would not even be considered murder: she is simply property in the eyes of the law. Certainly, Koko is not human. However, after watching this dynamic personality on screen for eighty minutes, it's impossible to think of her little more than luggage. She has real emotions, interacts sensitively and affectionately with humans, and at last has some rudimentary sense of self-awareness, even if she isn't the Plato of apes that her trainers sometimes make her out to be. Towards the end of the film, the narrator asks: "Isn't this gorilla demonstrably a person?" Schroeder adopts a distant. sometimes skeptical stance in the documentary, but there is little doubt that his answer to this question is an unequivocal "yes."


The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. There are a few scratches here and there, but otherwise the restored digital transfer looks sharp.


The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. The DVD also gives the viewer the option to watch the film with an English or French soundtrack. Optional English and French subtitles support the audio.


Not all Criterion releases come packed with goodies. The only extra here is a new 2005 interview with director Barbet Schroeder (11 min. look) who expresses his fondness for Koko in very moving terms. The thin (by Criterion standards) insert booklet contains an excellent essay by Gary Indiana and a brief "appreciation" by Marguerite Duras.

Closing Thoughts

Barbet Schroeder has a knack for finding great documentary subjects. In the hilarious/horrifying/addictive "General Idi Amin Dada" (1974), he let the delusional dictator parody himself, using the deceptively "objective" camera as a passive/aggressive antidote to Amin's ridiculous propaganda. With Koko he found an actor with equally mesmerizing screen presence, but with a sincerity and charm that is irresistible. She's certainly more of a person than old Idi ever was.


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