1 03 2009


Primate Cinema is a planned series of videos that visualize primate social dramas for human audiences. The first video experiment, Baboons as Friends, juxtaposes footage of baboons taken in the field with a reenactment by human actors, shot in film noir style in a bar in Los Angeles. A tale of lust, jealousy, sex, and violence transpires simultaneously in nonhuman and human worlds. Beastly males, instinctively attracted to a femme fatale, fight to win her, but most are doomed to fail. The story of sexual selection is presented across species, the dark genre of film noir re-mapping the savannah to the urban jungle.


Baboons as Friends is presented in split screen. One side shows raw field footage of baboons in Kenya, shot by primatologist/cognitive scientist, Deborah Forster. The other side shows a reenactment I scripted and directed with actors in Hollywood. The soundtrack combines actual vocalizations of the baboons with the ambience of a bar. Once the video has ended it is shown a second time along with a commentary by Forster on the behavior of primates. Baboons as Friends can also be presented as a two channel video installation with voiceover narration on headphones.

This project got started when I was taking a walk with primatologists, Deborah Forster and Shirley Strum. Strum wondered how to present the soap opera of primate life, so that baboon personalities and stories would be as easy to follow as, say, in an episode of the sit-com, Friends. I thought this would be an interesting challenge. Watching Friends, the viewer can instantly identify the characters, and quickly enter into the plot. But watching baboons, for the untrained eye it’s impossible to distinguish individuals and recognize behavioral patterns.

In presenting her idea, Strum was possibly expressing an interest in spreading the importance, understanding, and enjoyment of primatologists’ work to broader audiences. Primatologists who study in the field, perhaps more than other scientists, are invested in the media and ecological lives of their animals. Tragically, the survival of many species depend on the caprices of media attention and human sentiment. Animal “celebrities” like San Diego Zoo’s pandas or the apparently free-loving “hippie chimp,” bonobos, help popularize animal conservation. As an innovator in conservation practices, Strum has written about the role of the charismatic megafauna (large animals that charm humans) in aiding the broader need to preserve biodiversity (1987). Strum has also written about her research for a popular audience, referring to the baboons she studied as the “Pumphouse Gang” — an allusion to a short story about surfers in San Diego by Tom Wolfe — in an article for National Geographic (1975). Strum’s idea for me inspired a research project about generating meaning about primates for human audiences, the Primate Cinema series of video experiments, and an ongoing conversation with Forster and other primatologists.

Baboons are large Old World monkeys, not apes. They do not enjoy the status of charismatic megafauna like elephants or chimpanzees, perhaps, ironically because they manage to survive in the “wild” in large numbers. Baboons have a bad reputation in Africa; they have noticeably large canines, and appear to be unafraid of human beings. They raid crops that people rely on to feed their families. Watching baboons myself for the first time along a road in Uganda, their groupings and movements seemed mysterious and complex. Who is grooming who? Why are two suddenly screaming at each other? What motivated the entire group to disappear into the trees? I could understand how primatologists might want to spend hours or years observing a particular personality within a troop, to see what type of mother she would make, and what would happen to her progeny over time. Many books on the study of baboons understandably begin with a quotation by Darwin in his 1838 Notebook, “He who understands the baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke.”

In the forties and fifties, baboons were the favored model for human evolution, the man-as-hunter model of early human society. Moving from the protection of the trees to the open savannah, baboons, presumably like our human ancestors, would have to fight off predators, and hunt and forage for food. Males would protect females, and aggressively fight amongst themselves for rank and reproduction. The entry of women into the field of primatology coincided with a change in emphasis in the study of social organization (Haraway, 1989; Strum and Fedigan, 2000). In the sixties and seventies, new primatologists found baboons to be organized matrilineally: males of breeding age left the troop, females bestowed rank upon their young. Strum, Smuts, and others studied alliances, grooming, and negotiation in the large, intensely social groupings of baboons—in addition to aggression and hierarchy. Observing the canny exercise of politics in the lives of social primates, cognitive scientists postulated that the pressures of social life itself might have shaped the evolution of cognitive abilities in human beings. Thus despite the fact that chimpanzees and bonobos have become more popular models for human nature among the general public, for scientists baboons still present an intriguing case of social complexity.

Strum’s idea of baboons as Friends is a primatologists’ in-joke. What binds individuals together in olive baboon society is what she and other primatologists have called “friends” (Smuts, 1985). Savannah baboons are “promiscuous,” mating with many members of the opposite sex. But friends, in baboon society, are not on a brief adventure on the road to monogamous pairing or nuclear family. Baboon friendships are long-term, non-sexual bonds between males and females. They hang out with each other during the day, grooming and foraging together, and they sleep together at night. Baboon friends seem to provide comfort for each other in a society that is otherwise fraught with competition for food, sex, alliance, and rank. Friendship and the bond between mother and infant, are the glue of baboon society, constantly renewed through greetings, staying nearby, and watching and touching each other as the dramas of the day unfold.

Friends, the insipid, popular television drama, reminds us that human beings will often choose to watch simulated social interaction instead of engaging in real, proximate relationships. Friends is a variation on the women’s television genre, the soap opera. The audience for soap opera, the now-mythical full-time home-maker, could watch inter-family, inter-generational drama unfold day after day, year after year, while her own family was at work or school. The significance of the impulse to observe social relations in long-term studies such as Days of Our Lives and As the World Turns has not been lost on self-reflexive primatologists. Robin Dunbar (1998) postulates that human language skills evolved because of the advantages of gossiping. Whereas nonhuman primates must constantly monitor alliances visually and refresh them through proximity and touch, human primates are freed from this constant effort through language and other symbolic communication, such as media. Watching Friends and other educational, entertaining primate studies, human primates can learn different strategies for political advantage and conflict resolution. We get to enjoy the dangers and rewards of sociality from a safe distance.

Media studies converges with primatology on the topic of watching. Primatologists note primates’ compulsion to look at and learn from other primates. Primates signal attention and sometimes aggression through the direction of their gaze. Media theorists believe that human social and cultural lives are shaped by watching media: we learn how to kiss, and who to love through idealized stories displayed on screen. Media theorists have speculated about the mechanism of identification that occurs while watching a film narrative play out. The spectator identifies with the players on screen, watching as a voyeur in a dark theatre, losing self-consciousness, excited and saddened by the screen drama. It was recently discovered in monkeys that mirror neurons are stimulated when one watches another body perform an activity — the same neurons that would fire if one were to do the activity oneself. We learn, rehearse, and reenact social dynamics through watching others directly and presumably through media. Watching binds us to our social context. We identify ourselves among others.

So what happens when we watch other primates on television or in the wild? Do we see ourselves – or others? Is this part of the uncanny feeling we have watching chimps, who seem so anatomically similar to ourselves? Is there a possibility, when we watch primates, that we can see creatures who are genuinely similar and different, a projection of our culturally-biased view of human nature, and something else? Is there something intuitive about watching primate bodies that even exceeds or predates language?

Returning to the problem of presenting baboons as Friends, I thought that the human reenactment of nonhuman primate behavior seemed an interesting solution. Reenactment could be considered the visual equivalent of anthropomorphic thinking, which re-scripts the animal world in human terms. Anthropomorphic thinking is absurd but compelling. We are bound by our own experience as human animals to understand the lives of others through analogy to our selves. Although good primatologists are careful with their analogies, testing them scientifically, media representations of primates tend to be crude. I wanted to make this cognitive process visible: we imagine baboons as “friends” or at least as less sophisticated relatives with the help of popular media constructions of primates. Our fantasy of primates like chimpanzees is to imagine them as human clowns or children. Recently presented in television commercials as corporate bosses or inept flirts, chimps are often presented as human beings without cares or conscience. The Western fantasy of gorillas has been to racialize them as violent, sexual marauders, as in the 1933 film King Kong. Despite or because of media’s role in promulgating fantasies about primates, I believed that activating media cliché’s could enable a reading across species. I hoped that a reenactment through a media cliché could expose the process by which we project meaning on to primates.

I choose film noir instead of Friends as a familiar media language in which to translate nonhuman primate social drama into human terms. Presenting the reenactment in a stylized as opposed to a naturalistic manner I hoped would highlight the incommensurability of our mediated society and the world of baboons. Film noir does not encode truth claims like a documentary: it stands as a dramatization. Its clichés about gender and society read as historical and not universal. At the same time, I wanted to investigate how nonverbal communication, the gaze, and the body might link us together as primates.

Unlike situational comedies, film noir contains plenty of nonverbal communication: the leering gaze, the downtrodden posture, the threatening gesture. Film noir enabled me to play with the gaze, both as primate communication and as cinematic language. Femmes fatales, leading men to their doom, play a central role in plots with jealous husbands, fall guys, and those professional voyeurs, private eyes. World War II had apparently left filmmakers and biologists with a dark sense of human nature. Film noir was in vogue in the same era of the man-the-hunter / baboon model of human evolution.

Cognitive scientist Deborah Forster gathers data on baboon behavior with months of careful field notes and close analysis of video recordings. She studies group sexual dynamics focusing on a particular behavioral pattern, the consort turnover. When a female is sexually receptive, for about a week each month, she will mate with many partners; the drama before, during, and after a partner change, which happens several times a day, is called a consort turnover. To explain each individual’s situation within a consort turnover, she would play a video, stopping it from time to time, pointing to one baboon or the other, noting its posture, its position within the group in relation to other individuals, its gaze and level of tension. She could tell stories about each baboon’s sexual and family history, their age and personalities, their rank within the troop, and their affinities for each other. We looked at many examples of consort parties, often with the same characters involved, sometimes on the cliffs, sometimes on the rocks, often with infants and adolescents making the adults’ drama more complicated.

From the complexity and sheer numbers of players involved, I chose a relatively simple consort turnover, with a small cast of characters. I could see Crook’s possessive stance towards Michelle, standing behind her, seemingly looking out at Forster holding the camera. Forster pointed out displacement behaviors, scratching and covered yawns, which expressed the tension of the scenario: males lurked, waiting and watching the consort pair for an opportunity to be the next consort with Michelle. There was obviously competition, but Forster stressed the need for alliance and coordination between males throughout the drama. Signs of tension and aggression in the scenario increased until Crook chased one of the males, and Claiborne mated with Michelle, leaving the losers to run off in the distance. Despite menacing appearances, there was no violence. Deborah explained how perhaps previous alliances could explain why Crook chose to chase Herakles instead of Claiborne, allowing Claiborne to take his place with Michelle. The consort turnover provided a short, simple story with a conflict and a resolution. I adapted the consort turnover as a film noir bar scene, using Hollywood actors.

2 After auditioning for Crook the alpha male (figure 2), and the other players according to gender and age, I invited Forster to a rehearsal. She brought video of the baboons, gave a basic introduction to their behavior. I brought clips from film noir films. The actors played the scene as baboons, and after a few iterations, as humans.

3 They improvised human and baboon gestures of insult and reconciliation. The actors’ portrayal of group dynamics contributed a great deal to the project, helping me find film noir euphemisms for baboon behavior. I storyboarded and prepared a shot list from Forster’s description of events, and Liz Rubin, my director of photography tried to cover them during the shoot. With the recorded footage, I slowed down the baboons who have a faster metabolism than human beings, to half-speed. I timed the edit of the bar scene so that it matched certain moments with the baboon action, but not all. The “hard-boiled” film noir does not match the “raw” documentary: narrative editing distorts time and space, emphasizing character and story. The goal was not to imitate the baboons, but to punctuate moments of resemblance and difference.

Viewers of Primate Cinema: Baboons as Friends have expressed curiosity and have wanted to learn more about the baboons. Genetic research has reinvigorated interest in the commonality between primates, with chimpanzees reportedly sharing 98.6% of our genes. Anthropomorphism, once spurned by scientists, is now being re-approached with new lenses and tools. Primate minds are envisaged to be rational and emotional, embodied, and part of a larger socioecology. As opportunities to study the unruly lives of nonhuman primates in the “wild” continue to vanish, our imagination of our closest relatives may sadly be all that we have left. Primate Cinema is intended to stimulate questions about how cinema works to instill myths about nature, how we differ from animals, and what we share.


Dunbar, R. (1998). Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language, Harvard University Press: Cambridge.

Fedigan, L. (1982). Primate Paradigms: Sex Roles and Social Bonds, University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London.

Forster, D. (2002) Consort turnovers as distributed cognition in olive baboons: a systems approach to mind, In The Cognitive Animal: Empirical and Theoretical Perspectives on Animal Cognition, Bekoff M. and Burghardt, G., Editors, MIT Press, Boston.

Haraway, D. (1989). Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science, Routledge: New York and London.

Smuts, B. (1985). Sex and Friendship in Baboons, Aldine de Gruyter: New York.

Strum, S.C. (1975). Life with the Pumphouse Gang: New insights into baboon behavior,” National Geographic (174) 672-691.

Strum, S.C. (1987). Almost human: A journey into the world of baboons. Random House: New York.

Strum, S.C., and Fedigan, (Eds). (2000) Primate Encounters: Models of Science, Gender and Society, University of Chicago: Chicago.



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