“Rise of the Warrior Apes,” which premiered in July 2017, won the award for Best Animal Behavior Film at this year’s Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival. The Festival, held in September, is considered the “Oscars” of wildlife film.
The documentary, directed by award-winning director James Reed, was up against tough competition including two Planet Earth II programs. Focusing on the complex rivalry between male chimpanzees at Ngogo in Kibale National Park, Uganda, Reed blends over 20 years of research by scientists, including John Mitani, James N. Spuhler Collegiate Professor and Associate Chair of Anthropology, to create a dynamic and engaging film.
While documentaries inform the public about scientific research, conflict can arise between
filmmakers and scientists because their interests often collide.
“Filmmakers want to make films that sell and appeal to the masses,” said Mitani. “Scientists want to tell their stories and adhere to the science, which may not always be thrilling to your
Mitani stressed that Reed was not like other filmmakers he had worked with in the past. His
dedication to telling the chimps’ story as accurately as possible was evident from the beginning.
“James [Reed] worked hard on this film. He read everything that we had published about the Ngogo chimps. This isn’t always done. He knew the chimps. And he had the best interests of the chimps at heart, first and foremost,” said Mitani. “At the end of the day, he wanted to tell an
accurate scientific story as much as possible. To make that happen he shared everything with us as he put things together. He listened to us and made changes where he could. This doesn’t always happen when doing these things.”
Reed told the story of the Ngogo chimps in a way that honors Mitani’s dedicated career. While the Ngogo chimps have been the focus of Mitani’s research for 23 years, his field career spans much longer.
“I often feel like I’m the luckiest person on Earth, for I’ve had a long 40-year career studying some of the most amazing animals in the world, our closest living relatives the apes,” said Mitani.
He also feels that he was incredibly fortunate to have met Reed.
“In another stroke of luck, James Reed approached me a few years ago with an idea to do a film about the Ngogo chimpanzees,” said Mitani. “James is a brilliant filmmaker and master storyteller, and he put together an extraordinary film about the male chimpanzees at Ngogo.”
Through multiple interviews, Mitani stressed the importance of the chimps to his research and life. He hopes that this film will inform viewers about chimp behavior and the fact that they stand at the brink of extinction. His deep appreciation for these animals is apparent through all he does, and he feels lucky that his presence was accepted by the chimps themselves.
“The Ngogo chimpanzees are remarkable creatures, and they continue to help increase our
understanding of wild chimpanzee behavior. I’ve been incredibly lucky to be tolerated by the chimps and to be permitted to step into and be a part of their world,” said Mitani. “I hope that this new-found knowledge fosters a love and appreciation for them, which in turn will lead people to do something to protect and conserve them. Chimps are extremely endangered animals. We will have to work hard to ensure that they are still around for future generations.”