Primate | Chicago Reader


This 1974 documentary, made by Frederick Wiseman at the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center in Atlanta, shows scientists experimenting on various primates—stimulating them sexually, implanting measuring devices in their muscle tissues, performing surgery. The film caused public outrage when first aired on PBS, and Yerkes director Dr. Geoffrey Bourne, only mildly concerned when he saw it initially, later denounced the film as “a perversion.” Still, he had a point: by showing us endless images of primates in cages squealing with protest at their handling, Wiseman makes almost anyone feel uncomfortable. What we never get from the film is information about the benefits the research might have, an information blackout that makes it impossible for any but the already committed to form a balanced opinion of these activities. Where a master like Richard Leacock makes his camera subtly dance with its subject, Wiseman tends to film everything dead-on; his editing can be similarly unsubtle, as in a close-up of a cute little critter just before it's dissected. While Wiseman admits his works aren't objective—he calls them “reality fictions”—his film fails to acknowledge that the studied and detached attitude shown by the scientists toward the primates is duplicated by his highly selective and rather cold camera.

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