News Column

Columbus International Film Festival to screen endangered African apes film

November 7, 2013

YellowBrix

Nov. 07--If you know what a bonobo is, raise your hand. Any lack of awareness wouldn't surprise Rebecca Rose. "They're often referred to as the forgotten apes," said Rose, field conservation manager for the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, which houses 15 bonobos.

"We find that many people have never heard of a bonobo and don't know anything about them. They don't realize the richness of their culture or that they're endangered."

Rose hopes public awareness will be heightened by Beny: Back to the Wild (2011), the opening movie for the 61st annual Columbus International Film + Video Festival, beginning tonight and running through Nov. 17.

The story -- sure to melt a few hearts -- centers on the rescue of a young bonobo and its return to the jungle in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the only place on Earth where bonobos are found in the wild.

The film showcases the work at Lola ya Bonobo (paradise for bonobos in the native Lingala language), a sanctuary operated by Claudine Andre, a Belgian whose veterinarian father moved the family to Africa when she was a girl.

Andre was a zoo volunteer in Congo in 1993 when an injured bonobo was brought to the Kinshasa Zoo.

She nursed the ape back to health and, a year later, opened Lola ya Bonobo. There, bonobos -- which often fall victim to poaching by humans who want them as pets or for their meat -- are nurtured back to health.

The movie isn't quite a documentary: Andre told The Washington Post last year that the scenes were staged but that the central story is true.

The film uses Beny as the narrator. His happy days in the Congolese jungle end when poachers kill his mother and capture him.

He is sold, caged and kept in a bar. Owning a bonobo is illegal, though, so the animal is confiscated and given to Andre.

At the sanctuary, the young bonobo is given his name, fed and tended to medically.

Just as important, female staff members cuddle Beny and other young bonobos and provide constant attention.

Later, the young bonobos are placed with the adults to integrate into the group. But, as the sanctuary grows crowded, Andre selects several of the apes to prepare them for reintroduction into the wild.

Since the movie's release, 16 bonobos have been released.

The Internet Movie Database website lists the film as a family movie. Parents might need to do a little explaining when the mother bonobo dies. A few scenes also show apes in danger, but none of the scenes is gory.

On the plus side, plenty of bonobo antics should entertain younger viewers.

"As far as the subject matter, I can't think there's anything objectionable," said Susan Halpern, executive director of the festival. "If you would bring your child to see them live at the Columbus Zoo, there's certainly no issue with seeing this film."

The movie is in French with English subtitles, so children must be old enough to read well.

Congolese biologist Suzy Kwetuenda, who is in charge of bonobo conversation at Lola ya Bonobo and appears in the movie, will speak and answer questions tonight. Kwetuenda said by email from Paris on her way to Columbus that she hopes the movie will enable viewers to "understand how bonobos (are) still in danger and teach them to protect and to love them as our close cousin genetically."

Like the chimpanzee, the bonobo is humanity's closest relative in the animal kingdom, sharing 98.7 percent of its DNA with humans.

Physically, the bonobo compares to a chimpanzee but is more slender and has a darker face. Bonobos are less violent. Rather than engage in warfare as chimps do, bonobos blow off steam by having sex (not shown in the movie).

"It's one of the things than make them so incredibly fascinating," said Rose, who serves on the board of Friends of the Bonobos, which supports the sanctuary.

The local zoo is sponsoring the screening.

"They contacted us, and we said we would love to have this film shown," Halpern said. "We thought, 'Wow, what a great partnership.' They're conservationists, and we're all about that."

People who know little about the apes, Rose noted, don't know what they're missing.

"I guarantee, if you didn't know about these animals, you will be amazed by these animals and their lives. I promise."

tmikesel@dispatch.com

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