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Primate

Screening on Film
Directed by Frederick Wiseman.
US, 1974, 16mm, black & white, 105 min.
Print source: Zipporah Films

Riddled with scenes reminiscent of both horror and science fiction films, Primate displays behavior of both the human and non-human kind at the Yerkes Primate Research Center. However, it is the latter who are housed like prisoners and subjected to an endless barrage of tests and invasive procedures. Even intimate moments—such as an orangutan with her newborn—and the occasional affection, play or cute nickname seem like cold compensation for an institutionalized existence. While repeatedly demonstrating that the creatures they have caged are intelligent, sensitive beings, the scientists carry on with experiments that occasionally veer into the bizarre. Wiseman allows the viewer to experience a confusion and fear similar to that of the lab’s residents: being injected with an unknown substance or anxiously awaiting whatever terrors or rewards are in store when a white-coated figure opens the cage. Regardless of the argument for or against animal testing, Wiseman’s harrowing record might be asking what else humans are sacrificing in this unsettling exchange.

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2018 Norton Lectures in Cinema:
Frederick Wiseman

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