What’s Good: Rise of the Warrior Apes (2017), a Documentary by James Reed
Rise of the Warrior Apes (available here) was made by a group of researchers who worked their way into the confidence of the largest known society of chimpanzees in the wild.
The footage of the chimps of Ngogo, Uganda gathered over 23 years provides a fascinating insight into the complexities and personalities of the species which most resembles our own.
Some are wanderers. Some are social. Some are combative and all have a distinct place in the social hierarchy.
What is most striking about this society, however, is how it is defined—exactly like our own—by relative peace punctuated by brutal and irrational violence.
Lions hunt and kill other animals to sustain their own lives and those of their young. Ngogo chimpanzees, however, who subsist principally on the abundant fruit in their territory, also hunt, despite not needing to.
The researchers observed the chimps in packs strategically killing monkeys, and believe they do so purely in order to bond with one another. Catching their victim (the term 'prey' implies a hunt for food) reinforces group solidarity and relieves collective tension, and perpetuates the fiction that the enemy lies without not within.
It is telling that when the chimps outsmart and murder their victim they assemble peaceably around it and share out the spoils of their phoney victory. Steam is blown off. A task is completed en bloc. Life can carry on in peace, the ritual sacrifice having absorbed the violent impulses the participants would otherwise have eventually directed at each other.
But there is an even more troubling phenomenon of the chimp social order recorded for the first time in this documentary.
Half-way through the film, several Ngogo members inexplicably and spontaneously set upon and murder a chimp of their own named Grappelli.
Grappelli was the highest status vulnerable target in the society, a young arriviste not well liked by his peers. Grappelli was killed not because of anything he had done but like the monkeys to act as a common enemy whose destruction would restore solidarity among his persecutors.
When there is no enemy without, mobs form and find the most convenient 'enemy' within.
Although a new revelation in chimp culture, the sacrifice of innocent victims has been observable for centuries in our own.
The word Holocaust literally means 'sacrifice by fire' in ancient Greek. Innocent women were labelled 'witches' and burned at the stake throughout the late middle ages and early modern period. Today we still search out the highest status vulnerable target to destroy from Woody Allen to George Pell as I have written about on this blog and elsewhere.
When the catharsis of legitimate revenge mechanisms like the due process of law fail to adequately appease collective ressentiment, we unconsciously seek out high status victims to crucify as our forebears did to figures from Jesus of Nazareth to Joan of Arc.
The closer you get to humanity, the more violence you get, a fact which Rise of the Warrior Apes demonstrates. The film is a fascinating insight into the brutal and intelligent nature of chimpanzees. But it provides an even more interesting and troubling insight into the nature of their knuckle-dragging simian cousins: ourselves.