Anyone who has chuckled over images of adorable chimpanzees in movies, TV and commercials should wince a little watching this pointed documentary, which kicks off the 25th season of PBS’ “Nature.” Filmmaker Allison Argo methodically goes about exploring the use of chimps in medical research and entertainment, seeing their harrowing story through the eyes of committed folks trying to provide humans’ closest cousins some measure of freedom and respect after years of mistreatment. It’s a well-spent hour, even if no one is apt to find it “cute.”
Argo — who produced the Emmy-winning “The Urban Elephant” — opens with chimps’ role during the space program, then segues to their value (which some in the film question) as medical test subjects, which led to many being infected with HIV and other horrific diseases.
Many of the chimps utilized by the Air Force and space program were subsequently passed on to the Coulston Foundation, a jail-like facility that, the documentary says, was repeatedly fined for violating the federal Animal Welfare Act.
Equally damning, however, is the section on the entertainment industry, which — from “Tarzan” movies through modern advertising — has historically “left a trail of discarded chimpanzees.” Playful and pliable as toddlers, chimps, Argo explains, become too large and powerful to be effectively used as performers by the age of 6.
The documentary thus focuses on chimps that have in some instances spent the better part of a lifetime in confinement, as activist groups like Save the Chimps and Fauna Sanctuary, featured here, attempt to place them in more expansive surroundings. In one heartbreaking sequence, an elderly chimp that has grown up a captive in a small cage initially resists venturing out of his cramped environs, in much the same way a prisoner must adjust to the outside world.
“Nature’s” current season will continue through November with titles like “Penguins in the Antarctic” and “Christmas in Yellowstone” (the latter focusing on coyotes, wolves and others surviving winter in the park). Yet while the premiere installment closes on a somewhat uplifting note, it’s unlikely anything that follows in this anniversary season will match the unsettling nature of this “unnatural history.”