Chimp Empire – Netflix upcoming docuseries in four parts, narrated by Mahersala Ali are directed by James Reed. Here’s some background to the series.
In a mini-series 4 x 45 minutes. James Reed is the director of the series. According to the Netflix official logline, it thrives to explore the world of chimps in Uganda’s Ngogo Forest. Reed’s film team did their work under the COVID-pandemic, having two cameras following this group of chimps. They had John Mitani, scientific consultant, as help during these 1,5 years they were capturing footage.
Here’s the synopsis:
Under the lush canopies of Uganda’s Ngogo Forest dwells the largest chimpanzee society
ever discovered. For the last 25 years, scientists and field trackers have lived alongside this
tribe, watching as they built a sophisticated political and familial structure: forming alliances,
building trust, caring for one another, and often going head to head in a never ending fight for
power. When director James Reed (My Octopus Teacher) embedded a camera crew to
capture a uniquely intimate look at the chimps of Ngogo, there was no way to know that the
year ahead would bring some of the most tumultuous battles and dramatic changes in the
tribe’s history. Over the course of four unforgettable episodes – narrated by Academy Award®
winner Mahershala Ali – babies will grow, relationships will blossom, and leaders will rise and
fall. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to get up close and personal with our closest living animal
relatives, and an equally rare opportunity to learn about our own human society through the
mirror of these chimps and their fascinating lives.
The series will follow the chimps Jackson, Miles, Abrams, Christine during these episodes. The first episode introduces the animals, the second will have war, the third depicts the valuable figs and the final episodes shares the war and politics.
Netflix has done Q & A with the director. Here’s an extract of that interview.
Netflix: What drew you to this project?
James Reed, Director: Some years ago, I did a film about the Ngogo chimps and the
scientists who study them [Rise of the Warrior Apes]. It tracked their story from when they
were first discovered 25 years ago, and how the scientists learned about their unique
qualities. Following that film, there was internal conflict between the chimps ruling the group,
and they split into two distinct tribes. They didn’t contact each other at all, and whenever they
met, it was hostile. The scientists who worked there were telling me all this news: “You won’t
believe it, the Ngogo group has finally split. This is completely unprecedented. We have no
idea what will happen now. Will they reunite? Will they go to war?” So at this point we’d
reached an historic moment. The scientists felt like the next year or two was going to bring
about a lot of change. It was going to be new for science, and it also provided a really unique
opportunity to film a story about this amazing, dramatic situation in the forest.
Netflix: Who are these scientists who study the Ngogo groups? Were they involved in the
Reed: Professor John Mitani is the scientific consultant on the series. I’ve known him for
years, and he was the one who provided the interface for us with the small group that works at
Ngogo. There are about a dozen people who work with the chimps every day, and have done
Netflix: How long was your prep and research, and how long was your filming process?
Reed: We stepped into the situation with a good understanding of the chimps and a strong
relationship with John Mitani and the Ngogo scientists generally, so I think we probably got
away with less prep time than another team might have required. Straight away, we had a
shorthand. Our first shoot was in January of 2021, so we had about six months to prepare. A
lot of that was just working out the teams and the camera equipment. The team was made up
of unexpected choices in lots of ways. They all had experience in remote environments and
are very talented in their own ways, but they weren’t the most experienced natural history
camera people. What I tried to do was combine a range of different skills, give them autonomy
for their own creativity in the field, and allow them to bring their own instincts to it. We were
trying to get people who had the right personalities and the right instincts. From an editorial
point of view, we understood that we really didn’t know what was going to happen, and the
best thing we could possibly do was treat this as a true observational documentary and react
to interesting storylines. We were there for over a year, filming with the chimps virtually every
day. We also worked very closely with Ugandan field trackers – one of whom, Diana, shot really
critical moments on the series for us, in periods when we were not able to be there. She knew
the chimps better than we did, she was fitter than we were, and she sometimes got angles and
behaviors that we were not able to get.
Netflix: With this series following on the heels of My Octopus Teacher, you’re getting quite
a lot of experience in using animals to teach us about humanity. Why do you think this
genre is so appealing? Why is it sometimes easier to learn by watching animals than by
Reed: Hopefully – not just for this series, but the genre, generally – people can gain something
from just understanding animals for their own sake. They shouldn’t just be a way to look at
ourselves. That would seem a shame. But humans use metaphor and analogy in order to
explain things. We make those associations, and with chimps it’s particularly interesting,
because they are so close to us. Somehow, without all the trappings of modern life, you can
see things in chimps which are more pure and less self-conscious.
Netflix: People will be invested in the lives of these chimps after watching the series. Is
there a way to keep up with them beyond these four episodes?
Reed: We captured this moment, but the Ngogo scientists are following these stories all the
time. They continue to document those life stories, and they have a Facebook page, so the
stories are readily available online, actually. Not in as much detail, but they do give regular
updates on major things that happen. There’s news about new Alphas and all sorts of things
that have happened since. But we should probably do a Chimp Empire Season Two.
Executive Producers for the series are; For Underdog Films: James Reed; for Keo Films: Matt Cole. It’s set to premiere globally on Netflix on april 19, 2023.
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