Chimps watching humans act like chimps

This past week during lecture we had the pleasure of being visited by three fantastic and extremely stimulating guest speakers. I found the first speaker, filmmaker Rachel Mayeri, to be very interesting. The work she presented us with was a short film, created mainly with one target audience in mind, namely chimpanzees. Before showing us the film, she briefly discussed some of the logistics of how it was created and told us a little bit about her inspirations. I found it quite amusing when she described the old monkey in the “retirement home” watching General Hospital. From there she went on to tell us a bit about the monkeys in the film and then showed us the different places where she had actually showed the film to captive chimps.

One particular aspect of this piece that really stood out to me was the fact that this film was designed to be played for a chimp audience but had human actors playing the rolls of chimps. One student asked a question that was on my mind as well, did the chimps watching the film know that the chimps on the screen were fake? After a little bit of a debate, the guest speakers assured us that the chimps most likely were able to recognize the difference but were still able to enjoy the film as entertainment. I thought it was pretty comical the way the chimps would slowly meander up to the screen and then slap it and run away. Later in the presentation, we found out that this gesture was a symbol of curiosity, and that male chimps in the wild will often smack each others testicles as a show of friendliness, much like our human handshake. While this made the whole room snicker a bit, it was fascinating to see the correlations between our species and theirs; how different we are but the fact that we do the same type of things in slightly different ways.

Another thing i noticed was relating to the monkeys response as they watched. It seemed to me like the times that the monkeys in the cages in Scotland paid the most attention was when the female monkey with the animatronic face showed up. Most of the time they seemed to be casually watching from afar, but particularly the part of the film when she woke from her nap and came out into the room where the rest of the monkeys were really seemed to get the attention of the monkeys watching the film. This makes me wonder if they paid more attention to her because she was female, or if the elaborate and extremely realistic mask(compared to the other actors masks) had anything to do with it.

Overall, Mayeri’s use of filming techniques did a very good job at capturing the expressions and reactions of the monkeys that saw the film. I think this is a terrific example of how art and science can join together to yield a valuable piece of research as well as an aesthetically pleasing work of art.

~Jonathan Yergler

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