Chimp Empire is a four-part (an hour-ish each) documentary about two rival chimpanzee groups in Uganda. It’s one of the best, most enjoyable, most engaging, and most informative cinematic experiences I’ve ever had. My wife and I devoured it. It’s extraordinarily beautiful and compelling. It’s a story about two warring groups, replete with interesting characters and compelling drama. Scheming, backstabbing, loyalty, social climbing, bravery, cowardice. It’s all there.
The question my wife and I kept asking ourselves was, How the hell did they capture this remarkable footage? It couldn’t be fake, but it seemed utterly impossible how close the camera crews got to the chimps — including while the two tribes fight. Netflix has a behind-the-scenes video and story that explains how this was even possible:
While it would normally be impossible to capture the intimacy of
warring chimps in the wild, the filmmakers benefited from an
environment long marked by human activity — thanks to a constant
swarm of researchers. “It took 25 years to reach the point where
we can walk out and be near the chimps. We’re humans, so the
chimps just see us as an extension of the presence that’s been in
the forest for years,” Reed told Netflix.
This familiarity allowed the camera crew to capture Chimp Empire’s
most stunning scenes. But up-close encounters were still just
as bizarre as you might expect.
“I remember suddenly being aware that the Ngogo chimps were all
around. It’s like being on The Truman Show or something — you
feel like you’re on a set, because you can’t quite believe they’re
real,” Reed said. “They’re so human, you know that they’re
assessing you in the same way that you’re assessing them. You
can’t quite believe that they accept you into their world. You go
where they go, but they make all the decisions. The only thing you
can control is where you turn your cameras, or whether you keep up
with the action. It’s quite humbling, and I quite like it. The
only thing you can do is put yourself in the best position
possible to record what they’re doing.”
If you’ve got Netflix, start watching Chimp Empire tonight. If you don’t have Netflix, sign up for a month just to get Chimp Empire. Just watch it first, then read the behind-the-scenes stuff.
★ Monday, 22 May 2023