Chimpanzee: An Extraordinary Feat of Filming | Film Crew Endures Jungle Living for Extraordinary Footage

DisneyNature has another winner with Chimpanzee.

CHIMPANZEE is a fascinating display of primate culture—the teamwork, competition, and immutable laws of survival—that reminds us in so many ways of human behavior. Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield, who produced the DisneyNature feature Earth and the TV miniseries Frozen Planet, led a daring film crew on foot through the western Africa jungle over a three-year period to film a community of chimps.

More than just making a documentary, DisneyNature wanted the filmmakers to deliver a story. And the jungle was kind enough to comply. What the crew captured was a close-up study of the chimpanzee community, while focused on a baby chimp they named Oscar, whose unexpected life turns make his story worth filming.

It’s hard not to be impressed by the higher-order thinking that allows these primates to develop a range of sophisticated techniques that ensures their survival. According to a Public Radio interview with Fothergill, chimps have developed some 50 kinds of tools. And as we witness onscreen, they have mastered the technique of cracking very hard nuts with a rock. We watch the failures of young chimps who still need a few more years to get the hang of it. But the older chimps learned it from their mothers, who learned it from previous generations, who experimented until they developed a method that succeeded.

Another example of their sophisticated thinking is the way they strategize to capture monkeys. (Yes, monkeys are related to chimps, but they’re also an entrée.) We witness a clever and intricate tactic that reminds us of the way a football coach would position his players on the field, or how a commander would position his soldiers in battle. But this battlefield is high in the trees. And as each chimp moves into position—some are visible, some are hidden—they force the monkey into a vulnerable spot. It’s a brilliantly planned and carefully executed play that puts the meat on the table. And it’s impressive to watch, unless you’re rooting for the monkey.

Through the story of Oscar and his mother Isha, and the clan’s alpha leader, Freddie, we observe the social behavior of chimpanzees that resembles human nature. There’s gender specialization, and the organized cooperation for food-gathering, grooming, and defense. There’s the long dependency of the offspring on the mother, and the way the baby chimps play. There’s the “street-gang” animosity between clans, and competition within the clan to be the leader. And then, there’s the way these primates physically resemble Homo sapiens.

The downside of Chimpanzee is the junior-level narrative and hokey music. After all, DisneyNature produced this for kids. But hang in there, the story is worth it, as are the photography and the drama. You will be as educated and entertained as you are amazed by the perseverance of the filmmakers, who were ignored by the chimps but not by the snakes, scorpions, safari ants, and other jungle wildlife. Fothergill and company, you rule. B+