Coming to PBS tonight, Wednesday, August 3: KOKO: THE GORILLA WHO TALKS
Jonathan Taylor’s look at the famed sign-language-using ape debuted on the UK’s BBC earlier this Summer. It now comes to American public television.
While Koko’s story has been the subject of other documentary programs over the past forty years, including Barbet Schoeder’s KOKO: A TALKING GORILLA, Taylor’s production benefits from the hindsight of time, chronicling the scope of Project Koko, which began in 1972 and continues to this day. While his crew gives a sense of Koko’s life now, they are also given access to extensive archival footage, much of it shot by Ron Cohn, co-founder of the Gorilla Foundation, who has been in Koko’s life since his colleague, Penny Patterson, began her study of animal communication while a graduate student at Stanford University. The film is as much about Patterson as it is her simian surrogate daughter, to whom she taught more than 1000 words using sign language, and who she believes has demonstrated the ability to communicate complex and abstract thoughts. While others who have studied animal communication have questioned her claims, Patterson has persevered, devoting her entire personal and professional life to Koko, even while her field has moved away from the study of interspecies communication. Limited by a too-short hourlong running time, Taylor’s film is unfortunately unable to approach this intriguing controversy in much depth before moving on to consider the difficulty Patterson has had in fulfilling Koko’s apparent desires to be a mother herself.