Friday, 27 August 2010


Primate sees realist documentarian Frederick Wiseman hone his lens on the inmates of the Yerkes Primate Research Centre. A representative scientist explains the aims and outcomes of the organisation, describing the mating habits and relationships of the animals. Wiseman’s camera never intrudes or probes – the film could easily be seen as a pamphlet for the centre – but we learn a lot about the treatment of the animals just by watching wordlessly. A baby chimp, wearing a fresh nappy, is forced to hold onto a wire and a piece of cloth simultaneously while a scientist times how long it takes for her to fall. Experiments take place without description, and only the occasional observation is made.

Due to Wiseman’s direct style, it is often easy to watch his films without questioning them, but the focus of Primate means that the suggestion of animal cruelty is rife. Wiseman’s earlier Titicut Follies, which studies the residents of a hospital for the criminally insane, frequently comes to mind, particularly in what one is meant to take away from the film, but in Primates the subjects are unable to speak for themselves. In this respect, Primate elicits a stronger emotional response from the audience. The success of the film may be down to the fact that the humans featured do not feel that there is anything wrong with their way of working, meaning it is up to the viewer to raise the important questions. Horrific but unflinching, Primate is the objective documentary at its best.

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