Documentarian James Reed on Witnessing Chimpanzee Patrols and Attacks

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James Reed

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James Reed is a filmmaker whose works include "My Octopus Teacher," "Rise of the Warrior Apes," and "Jago: A Life Underwater." His new documentary series "Chimp Empire" is streaming on Netflix now. www.underdog-films.com

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Now, when the chimps are on patrol, that's a uniquely intense and aggressive moment, and it's so wild to watch, to see them, these hulking chimpanzees move through the forest in coordination. When you're there with that, and you're very close to these violent encounters with the other chimps, is there any concern there that you could get caught up in this sort of violent frenzy and maybe be in danger of being attacked? You know, there isn't actually. And that, I mean, the what? Let me rephrase that. I would say on a personal level, of course, right? You know, you come, you hear about these things happening. You know it's a possibility we'll be there when it happens, when it's filmed. So we ask exactly the same question. So this is, you know, I've been through the exact same process as you are now and have this conversation with the scientists like, are we going to be safe? You know, is it safe for us to where should we be or where should we not be if this happens when we're there? So totally, we had exactly the same questions and we just didn't know. And we were reassured by the scientists, you know, you'll be amazed. You're like, wow, you see those things, they will happen, but they will ignore you. And their only warning was that definitely don't get too close. You know, the because the level of excitement around the chimps during these encounters, you know, if there's ever a time when they could accidentally come very close to you or suddenly see you and get a bit of a fright, you know, they wouldn't want they wouldn't want to take that sort of a risk with us. So they did. They did. We were warned, you know, keep a respectful distance from that. But amazingly, and there's a little a little behind the scenes clip that we've sort of released on YouTube now. And you can see that during during the bit the biggest encounter that we filmed, the camera people were sort of like in it and around it and sort of at one stage sort of like accidentally between the two groups standing off. And you know that the certain way I mean, the chimps move so fast and they organize reorganize, separate or whatever. So you can try and be in the perfect position. But then that perfect position could quickly become where you don't want to be because of where the chimps have gone. So through no fault of their own. You know, there's there are times when they're sort of there in there sort of it's a bit like being a war reporter or something. But weirdly, you know, they're so focused on what it is they're doing and have no interest in sort of involving or redirecting their aggression to the humans at all. I think, you know, because of, you know, there are some quite high profile and sort of like pretty tragic sort of human chimp interactions on the remaining gogo. No, no, I mean, sort of like things that happened at zoos or yes, or whatever. And I think that it I think it does give us sort of an an unusual impression of what chimps are like in the wild. They have all that sort of capability and more so, you know, the in gogo chimps. There's so many of them and and they are engaged in these sort of violent competitions with other groups. That's a very real thing. And and and, you know, and it can get serious. But their relationship with people is just completely different to a relationship chimps might have with people in captivity or if they've been kept as pets or something. Yeah, it's just it's not I totally get it. And those are exactly the sort of things I wanted to know before I stepped in and gogo to. Well, I mean, you know, for sure. You need to know. But amazingly, when you've been there around it and even once you've just been on a single patrol with them, and they're exhilarating when you go on patrol with in gogo chimps, it's amazing. They are taking you on a journey to the edge of their border and they fully committed and they coordinated and we don't seem to care that you're following and they're allowing you to sort of be there. That's amazing. Yeah. It's it's an incredible experience that she's real adrenaline. Yeah, there they are. Look at that. This was my favorite part, just watching them move in coordination and just wondering, like, what, how do they know? Like, what are they doing? It almost seems like they're gesturing in some ways like that chimp with the one hand. So this is a behind the scenes. But yeah, exactly. You know, gestures quite often that in our form or hands all over each other. Yeah, that that's undeniable. They're sort of reassuring gestures. They know they're in this like tense situation. They're nervous. I think that you can read into that that they're sort of telling each other that like, I'm with you. I'm with you. I'm here. That physical contact is just, you know, it's just reassuring each other that we're in this together. It's you and me. And when violence does break out, what is that experience like? I mean, when you're seeing chimp on chimp violence from several feet away, that has to be wild. I don't, I said we, I mean, I don't really want to give away any spoilers for the series because some of some of these things are sort of like major plot points in the series. I know what you're saying. I appreciate your artistic sentiment. It doesn't matter. It's so good. But even if you say what happens and people get to see it, it's so good. I mean, and I would say that, like I said, I often personally, I wasn't there for many of the things that happened. But I was some and I have been there previously and go go, where certain things about it. It's hard. I think that is chimp on chimp. Violence is a lot harder to watch than the chimp on monkey violence for me personally. And whether I'm there myself or whether I'm seeing it recorded later on, I think there's a there's kind of a sadness to that personally. Quite often it's because in truth, the it gets more serious if the chimps outnumber them significantly. So when when chimps are kind of equal sized groups, when they come into contact, they usually less violent situations. Because it's too much danger. It's there's too much danger, too much at stake. It's kind of a bit bravado. They run at each other a few times. But if there's enough chimps on either side, you can pretty much know that in this immediate situation, no one's going to get badly hurt. They get badly hurt when they're outnumbered. And obviously that on a human level, just no one likes seeing that sort of thing. You know, there's there's just a yeah, that that it's just horrible. And then, you know, unfortunately, we've all sort of seen that person or clips of that in humans. And it's the most uncomfortable, horrible stuff. It really makes you horrible. So yeah, all of that stuff is very hard to watch. And sorry. Well, now, I'll say even, you know, interestingly, I said we, the scientists and go, go, we know them really well now. And we've worked with them for a long time. So we share things and they share stories that on a more personal level with us. But they are obviously better than we or a viewer would be at detaching themselves. You know, this is just what happens. They're there to observe and try and understand. It's not an emotional thing. But even even they who have been there for many years. And I think particularly because they've been there for many years, sometimes you see an act of violence on a chimp that you've known and been following around for ages. They may not care about you, but you really care about them. And it's sad. Yeah, it's very sad. During the filming, or at least on the show, there's one instance of chimpanzees killing another chimp. Was there more of that? You're blowing all the... I'm not. I'm not. Okay. You think it's a spoiler alert, but I'm telling you, it's just... It's so complex and so fascinating and so good. Yeah. Okay, good. No, no, no, it's fine. I don't know. It's you for me. I know it's your baby. No, no, it doesn't really matter. It doesn't matter. It's so good. It doesn't matter. Okay. Yes. Okay, so that happens. Was it only one time while you were there? Well, yes. No. Well, there's another thing in the series we're not going to talk about. Okay. Because that really is a spoiler. But yes, couple of occasions whilst we were there. And that is... Does it conflict it? Do you almost have this feeling that you want to intervene and protect the chimp? I think, yeah, everybody who's been around since... Those feelings, you wish it wouldn't happen. You don't want this to conclude in the way that you think it might. But again, I think I totally understand why you're asking. But I think once you've been around them enough and you have to have this commitment to... It's part of the same point that you were asking earlier about that impact on their lives. You want zero impact on their lives or minimal, right? You don't want any negative impact. You actually can't make too much of a positive impact either. Also, it just wouldn't be practical. It's not safe. What could you do? Shout and make a noise and try and disturb them just enough for a moment? The chimp could get away and... Possibly. But I think that it wouldn't be ethical to do it. It is natural behaviour. That's my take on it from what I've seen at Ngo-Go. This is part of their natural behaviour. They are competitive and they're territorial. Those behaviours have served them well in the past. As much as it's not from a human observer point of view, that same thing, taking that same situation out as something you observed in the street, all those natural sort of tendency desires to intervene and stop something, they're there for good reason. This is the entire scientific project, our commitment as filmmakers to observe but not interfere. That's all part of the same thing. You couldn't be stepped out of that role in any circumstance. You've crossed a line in a really odd way. In a way, that helps with what you're feeling when you see or observe those things because you know there's absolutely nothing you can do about this. Of course, ethically, you really can't intervene. It's still... What an amazing experience for you as a human being to have gone through this. This is such a rare, rare insight into these animals and these incredibly unique creatures and their behaviour. You must feel so fortunate just to have experienced, just as a human being, just as a life experience to take that in. I really do. Yeah, I really do. I mean, this... You know, I've been very lucky in lots of bits of my job that I've done over the years. I think that it's a great job. It's very hard work, a lot harder than probably what people appreciate. But extremely lucky on loads of things. I do feel within GoGo Chims in particular, like you say, as a human being, from an existential sort of point of view, there's like... I'm so fortunate. And not really... Not many people get to see that. And they are our closest relatives. And they are fascinating because of the connections we have with them. They're also fascinating because they're different and they're all individuals. And it's a chance to just... You kind of feel a part of something that has brought that important knowledge and information to people. Yeah, so I feel personally very fortunate. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.The Jerogan experience. Now, when the chimps are on patrol, that's a uniquely intense and aggressive moment, and it's so wild to watch, to see them, these hulking chimpanzees move through the forest in coordination. When you're there with that, and you're very close to these violent encounters with the other chimps, is there any concern there that you could get caught up in this sort of violent frenzy and maybe be in danger of being attacked? You know, there isn't actually. And that, I mean, the what? Let me rephrase that. I would say on a personal level, of course, right? You know, you come, you hear about these things happening. You know it's a possibility we'll be there when it happens, when it's filmed. So we ask exactly the same question. So this is, you know, I've been through the exact same process as you are now and have this conversation with the scientists like, are we going to be safe? You know, is it safe for us to where should we be or where should we not be if this happens when we're there? So totally, we had exactly the same questions and we just didn't know. And we were reassured by the scientists, you know, you'll be amazed. You're like, wow, you see those things, they will happen, but they will ignore you. And their only warning was that definitely don't get too close. You know, the because the level of excitement around the chimps during these encounters, you know, if there's ever a time when they could accidentally come very close to you or suddenly see you and get a bit of a fright, you know, they wouldn't want they wouldn't want to take that sort of a risk with us. So they did. They did. We were warned, you know, keep a respectful distance from that. But amazingly, and there's a little a little behind the scenes clip that we've sort of released on YouTube now. And you can see that during during the bit the biggest encounter that we filmed, the camera people were sort of like in it and around it and sort of at one stage sort of like accidentally between the two groups standing off. And you know that the certain way I mean, the chimps move so fast and they organize reorganize, separate or whatever. So you can try and be in the perfect position. But then that perfect position could quickly become where you don't want to be because of where the chimps have gone. So through no fault of their own. You know, there's there are times when they're sort of there in there sort of it's a bit like being a war reporter or something. But weirdly, you know, they're so focused on what it is they're doing and have no interest in sort of involving or redirecting their aggression to the humans at all. I think, you know, because of, you know, there are some quite high profile and sort of like pretty tragic sort of human chimp interactions on the remaining gogo. No, no, I mean, sort of like things that happened at zoos or yes, or whatever. And I think that it I think it does give us sort of an an unusual impression of what chimps are like in the wild. They have all that sort of capability and more so, you know, the in gogo chimps. There's so many of them and and they are engaged in these sort of violent competitions with other groups. That's a very real thing. And and and, you know, and it can get serious. But their relationship with people is just completely different to a relationship chimps might have with people in captivity or if they've been kept as pets or something. Yeah, it's just it's not I totally get it. And those are exactly the sort of things I wanted to know before I stepped in and gogo to. Well, I mean, you know, for sure. You need to know. But amazingly, when you've been there around it and even once you've just been on a single patrol with them, and they're exhilarating when you go on patrol with in gogo chimps, it's amazing. They are taking you on a journey to the edge of their border and they fully committed and they coordinated and we don't seem to care that you're following and they're allowing you to sort of be there. That's amazing. Yeah. It's it's an incredible experience that she's real adrenaline. Yeah, there they are. Look at that. This was my favorite part, just watching them move in coordination and just wondering, like, what, how do they know? Like, what are they doing? It almost seems like they're gesturing in some ways like that chimp with the one hand. So this is a behind the scenes. But yeah, exactly. You know, gestures quite often that in our form or hands all over each other. Yeah, that that's undeniable. They're sort of reassuring gestures. They know they're in this like tense situation. They're nervous. I think that you can read into that that they're sort of telling each other that like, I'm with you. I'm with you. I'm here. That physical contact is just, you know, it's just reassuring each other that we're in this together. It's you and me. And when violence does break out, what is that experience like? I mean, when you're seeing chimp on chimp violence from several feet away, that has to be wild. I don't, I said we, I mean, I don't really want to give away any spoilers for the series because some of some of these things are sort of like major plot points in the series. I know what you're saying. I appreciate your artistic sentiment. It doesn't matter. It's so good. But even if you say what happens and people get to see it, it's so good. I mean, and I would say that, like I said, I often personally, I wasn't there for many of the things that happened. But I was some and I have been there previously and go go, where certain things about it. It's hard. I think that is chimp on chimp. Violence is a lot harder to watch than the chimp on monkey violence for me personally. And whether I'm there myself or whether I'm seeing it recorded later on, I think there's a there's kind of a sadness to that personally. Quite often it's because in truth, the it gets more serious if the chimps outnumber them significantly. So when when chimps are kind of equal sized groups, when they come into contact, they usually less violent situations. Because it's too much danger. It's there's too much danger, too much at stake. It's kind of a bit bravado. They run at each other a few times. But if there's enough chimps on either side, you can pretty much know that in this immediate situation, no one's going to get badly hurt. They get badly hurt when they're outnumbered. And obviously that on a human level, just no one likes seeing that sort of thing. You know, there's there's just a yeah, that that it's just horrible. And then, you know, unfortunately, we've all sort of seen that person or clips of that in humans. And it's the most uncomfortable, horrible stuff. It really makes you horrible. So yeah, all of that stuff is very hard to watch. And sorry. Well, now, I'll say even, you know, interestingly, I said we, the scientists and go, go, we know them really well now. And we've worked with them for a long time. So we share things and they share stories that on a more personal level with us. But they are obviously better than we or a viewer would be at detaching themselves. You know, this is just what happens. They're there to observe and try and understand. It's not an emotional thing. But even even they who have been there for many years. And I think particularly because they've been there for many years, sometimes you see an act of violence on a chimp that you've known and been following around for ages. They may not care about you, but you really care about them. And it's sad. Yeah, it's very sad. During the filming, or at least on the show, there's one instance of chimpanzees killing another chimp. Was there more of that? You're blowing all the... I'm not. I'm not. Okay. You think it's a spoiler alert, but I'm telling you, it's just... It's so complex and so fascinating and so good. Yeah. Okay, good. No, no, no, it's fine. I don't know. It's you for me. I know it's your baby. No, no, it doesn't really matter. It doesn't matter. It's so good. It doesn't matter. Okay. Yes. Okay, so that happens. Was it only one time while you were there? Well, yes. No. Well, there's another thing in the series we're not going to talk about. Okay. Because that really is a spoiler. But yes, couple of occasions whilst we were there. And that is... Does it conflict it? Do you almost have this feeling that you want to intervene and protect the chimp? I think, yeah, everybody who's been around since... Those feelings, you wish it wouldn't happen. You don't want this to conclude in the way that you think it might. But again, I think I totally understand why you're asking. But I think once you've been around them enough and you have to have this commitment to... It's part of the same point that you were asking earlier about that impact on their lives. You want zero impact on their lives or minimal, right? You don't want any negative impact. You actually can't make too much of a positive impact either. Also, it just wouldn't be practical. It's not safe. What could you do? Shout and make a noise and try and disturb them just enough for a moment? The chimp could get away and... Possibly. But I think that it wouldn't be ethical to do it. It is natural behaviour. That's my take on it from what I've seen at Ngo-Go. This is part of their natural behaviour. They are competitive and they're territorial. Those behaviours have served them well in the past. As much as it's not from a human observer point of view, that same thing, taking that same situation out as something you observed in the street, all those natural sort of tendency desires to intervene and stop something, they're there for good reason. This is the entire scientific project, our commitment as filmmakers to observe but not interfere. That's all part of the same thing. You couldn't be stepped out of that role in any circumstance. You've crossed a line in a really odd way. In a way, that helps with what you're feeling when you see or observe those things because you know there's absolutely nothing you can do about this. Of course, ethically, you really can't intervene. It's still... What an amazing experience for you as a human being to have gone through this. This is such a rare, rare insight into these animals and these incredibly unique creatures and their behaviour. You must feel so fortunate just to have experienced, just as a human being, just as a life experience to take that in. I really do. Yeah, I really do. I mean, this... You know, I've been very lucky in lots of bits of my job that I've done over the years. I think that it's a great job. It's very hard work, a lot harder than probably what people appreciate. But extremely lucky on loads of things. I do feel within GoGo Chims in particular, like you say, as a human being, from an existential sort of point of view, there's like... I'm so fortunate. And not really... Not many people get to see that. And they are our closest relatives. And they are fascinating because of the connections we have with them. They're also fascinating because they're different and they're all individuals. And it's a chance to just... You kind of feel a part of something that has brought that important knowledge and information to people. Yeah, so I feel personally very fortunate. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.