Rainforest Fiction: Disney 'Chimpanzee' Film a Splice of Life

By Jörg Blech

A Disney film about altruistic chimpanzees has been a huge hit in the United States. The movie is about to be released in Germany, where it is being marketed as a true story. Now a German researcher who was the flick's main scientific adviser has admitted large parts of the touching story were made up.

British nature filmmakers Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield have supposedly witnessed a story in the African rainforest even better than something that Walt Disney could have dreamed up.

While filming in the Taï National Park in southwestern Ivory Coast, the two claim to have stumbled upon a small chimpanzee who was taking his first steps in life. They say that the boy's mother had suddenly disappeared after an attack by a rival group of chimps, and that the young chimp was doomed to die -- at least until a small male chimpanzee showed up out of the blue, adopted him and changed his new son's life forever.

"We had golden moments in the Taï Forest on Africa's Ivory Coast and we captured them on film," Linfield claims in the film's press kit. He filmed "Chimpanzee" along with Fothergill, who is already celebrated as the "Steven Spielberg of nature films." The movie will be released in German theaters next week, a year after it hit screens in the United States. Award-winning cinematographer Martyn Colbeck did the camera work, while world-famous primatologist and behavior researcher Jane Goodall served as an adviser to the directors.

The film was commissioned by Disney, and even before its cinematic release in Germany, the company already had its marketing machine in full gear, promoting not only the story behind the making of the film, but also the claim that it is a portrayal of real-life events. "Filmed over a period of months and under extreme conditions, 'Chimpanzees' is a true, one-of-a-kind story that could only be written by nature," the German-language press kit for the media in Germany reads.

The film has already been a major hit in North America, bringing in almost $29 milllion (€22.1 million). But right before it hits the screens in Germany, it has emerged that the chimpanzee story is a rainforest fairy tale.

'No One Would Have Believed Us'

"The story was constructed," admits Christophe Boesch, one of the world's best-known chimpanzee researchers. The 61-year-old native of Switzerland is head of the primatology division at the renowned Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in the eastern German city of Leipzig and participated directly in the filming in the Ivory Coast rainforest as the principle scientific consultant.

What appears to be continuous documentation was actually pieced together, Boesch says. The tough orphan star of the film was played "by five different chimpanzees," he claims, though a young chimpanzee named Oscar does assume a leading role in large stretches of the narrative.

However, Oscar didn't lose his mother -- nor was he ever adopted by any male chimpanzee whom he didn't know, as the press kit for the German market claims. A young male chimp was in fact orphaned during the filming and was adopted by an older male chimp, but this animal died in July 2009, a few months after losing its mother.

Boesch attributes this sleight of hand and omissions of fact to the team behind the film. He says that it was their idea to keep silent about the production's true background in order to "not damage the film's magic." On Friday, SPIEGEL requested contact with the film team through the Munich office of the spokesperson for Walt Disney Germany to address the allegations made by Boesch, but it had not received an official reply by the time the English version of this story was set for publication online on Monday afternoon.

Boesch and filmmaker Fothergill have known each other for a long time and had already agreed to team up for a film on chimpanzees years ago. No place seemed better suited for one than the research station that the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig runs in the Ivory Coast. Boesch and his colleagues study the West African chimpanzees that live here in the wild. At the moment, there are 54 animals, all of which have been given names by the institute's scientists.

The chimpanzees have become accustomed to humans due to the constant presence of zoologists, so they do not immediately run away. To take advantage of this situation, the film crew built a hut when they arrived at the institute's camp in 2008 and had the primatologists guide them to the apes.

'Extraordinary Events'

"We got incredibly lucky when we started filming," the press kit quotes Fothergill as saying. "We couldn't script anything, so we just had to wait and see what happened with our group of chimpanzees. First of all we found Oscar, who was adorable, and then these extraordinary events overtook him and his mother and the rest of the group of chimpanzees."

Members of the film crew supposedly witnessed how a rival gang of chimpanzees showed up and threatened Oscar's family. It was at this moment, according to the press kit, that the filmmakers realized that they "had found another key ingredient of their drama: a menacing cast of villains and a powerful plot twist. The leader of the rival group was an older male known as Scar, a name he more than lived up to with the grizzled appearance of an aging boxer who'd fought one too many fights."

Linfield, the other filmmaker, also supplies lively memories. "If we had scripted it, no one would have believed us," he says in the press kit. "So it really is one of those truth-is-stranger-than-fiction moments."

But that's apparently exactly what they did. When SPIEGEL questioned Christophe Boesch about the filming in his office at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, he became nervous and came clean after half an hour. What's more, an article that Boesch and three colleagues published in the US science magazine PLoS ONE in January 2010 furnishes evidence that the filmmakers' version of what happened in the jungle cannot be correct.

Scripting a Jungle Melodrama

Boesch says that the filmmakers were already in the camp for their second season of filming when a chimpanzee mother, whom the researchers had christened Vanessa, died in December 2008. In the account presented in Disney's press kit, the mother went missing after an attack by the rival group. But contrary to that claim, the truth is that she was actually killed by disease, anthrax.

Likewise, Oscar's clan and Scars' group weren't adversaries. "The supposed rivals live in Uganda," Boesch says, where the filmmakers traveled because they couldn't find any sufficiently terrifying gangs of chimpanzees in the rainforest of the Ivory Coast. "The Disney people just wanted to have images in which one sees a large number of apes," he says.

In the film, the scenes are simply spliced together. Whoever knows the background can immediately recognize that the apes that appear to be fighting each other in the film look different. And that's because they belong to different biological subspecies. In some shots, there are West African chimpanzees; in others, East African chimpanzees.

The German press kit makes no mention of this fact. Instead, it cryptically states that the filmmakers "supplement their footage with shots from Gabon and the Ngogo Forest in the Kibale National Park in Uganda."

An Adoption Did Happen

At least the adoption isn't made up. After Vanessa died from anthrax, a chimpanzee named Fredy actually did take care of her orphaned son Victor despite the fact that the two were unrelated. However, in his PLoS ONE article, which directly discusses the episode with Fredy, Boesch and his colleagues note that "chimpanzees do care for the welfare of other unrelated group members and that altruism is more extensive in wild populations than was suggested by captive studies." The article notes that Fredy "shared his nest with (Victor) every night, carried him on his back for all long travels, and shared the Coula nuts he opened."

Although this does show Fredy to be a genuinely altruistic ape, his role as an adoptive father was unfortunately unsuccessful because Victor died after just seven months. Incidentally, the study concluded that most orphaned chimpanzees suffer the same fate and that adoption does not improve their chances of long-term survival.

This sad reality apparently failed to dissuade the film team from making up a jungle melodrama. After returning from the rainforest, they were apparently determined to pretend like they had really witnessed the story they portray in their film.

But they didn't figure what Boesch might do into their risky calculation. The respected Max Planck Institute director now prefers to stick to the truth. Still, despite the film's truth-bending, Boesch still hopes the fairy tale will be a big success. One reason for this is the fact that a portion of the film's earnings will go to a foundation he launched that aims to secure the survival of the chimpanzees in Taï National Park.

Translated from the German by Josh Ward

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1. song for the chimp
tnt_ynot 04/29/2013
Every film needs a great song even if the chimp can't sing. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AV-59rI9hhQ&feature=youtu.be
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