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Review: ‘Nenette’

40-Year-Old Orangutan Becomes a Star in New Doc

The 40-year-old star of

Credit: Kino

Above: The 40-year-old star of "Nenette."


KPBSfilm critic Beth Accomando reviews the French documentary "Nenette."


Nenette is a 40-year-old orangutan living in a Paris zoo. She's also the star of Nicolas Philibert's new documentary "Nenette" (opening February 4 at Landmark's Ken Cinema). You can listen to my review or read my extended feature.

"Nenette" opens in silence with an extreme close up of a face and hands. They look very human but not quite. We soon realize this is the weathered face of an old orangutan. The silence is then broken by children's voices as they approach the venerable orangutan.

Nenette is a star attraction at the Jardin des Plantes Exotiques in Paris. She was born in the forests of Borneo in 1969 and brought to the French zoo at the age of three. Documentary filmmaker Nicolas Philibert ("To Be and To Have," "In the land of the Deaf") decided to turn his lens on this grand lady and has crafted a film that is as much about the great ape as it is about the people that come to visit her.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Kino


Philibert places his camera outside Nenette's cage. Then he simply observes and listens. He observes Nenette and listens to all the people who come by to visit. One man recounts how Nenette had three mates over the decades and wore them all out. Then he explains Nentte has been put on the pill so she doesn't have babies with her son who shares the enclosure with her.

One woman, whispering softly, confides her concerns over Nenette's lack of a new mate. She speculates that it would be more fun if there was a girl for the son and a male orangutan for Nenette. That would be more fun. The woman says she looks depressed and quietly "I would be as sad as she if I was alone with my son." Then she makes ape sounds as she tries to communicate with the ole girl to show her solidarity.

As we hear these people talk they consistently try to give human emotions to Nenette. Tanya Howard is a zookeeper at the San Diego Zoo. She says it’s very easy for people to put human emotions on these great apes.

"It's really hard not to look at the animals and see how smart they are and not put human emotion on them," Howard says, " We try to distance it and say it 'looks' like they are feeling happy about something but sometimes they do stuff and it's definitely a happy behavior."

"I think part of it is that [people] do identify with orangutans and can see correlations with human behavior and great ape behavior," Howard continues, "And maternal care is something you see a lot of times and even the problem solving we give them enrichment and the different ways the animals figure out how to get to the enrichment and play with the enrichment and people just love seeing the animals' thought process. On exhibit we try to make things very natural so we'll give them pine cones and gourds and bamboo and different things like that that don't stand out like a plastic toy would. But like we'll give them pine cones that has like peanut butter melted into it and then frozen and some animals will take sticks and very delicately take all the peanut butter out of the pine cone center or others will just sit there and just break it with their hands and just destroy it and get the peanut butter that way."

San Diegans are lucky to have an orangutan exhibit that was renovated in 2002 to increase space, add more sway polls, and make it a mixed species exhibit. Howard says that the orangutans she works with "are really smart and need extra stimulation or they can get really bored." And that boredom is something that see,s to trouble Nenette.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Kino


Nenette lives in a much more confining environment. In other engagements, this hour-long documentary has been smartly paired up with Nick Park's animated "Creature Comforts." That animated short used interviews with real British tenement dwellers complaining about being trapped as the voice track for claymation zoo animals bemoaning their confinement in a zoo. For San Diego, the film will be paired with a short doc from Philibert called "Night Falls on the Ménagerie," about what the animals at the zoo do at night.

In the documentary, Philibert does not overtly criticize the ape's living conditions but we can't help but feel sorry for the poor girl who sits idly for hours. Someone notes that she's lucky to be pampered with yogurt and tea breaks. But we see how she's scratched paint off the walls and she generally just seems bored. But just as people read what they want onto Nenette, viewers are likely to read what they want onto Philibert's film. Some will see it as a criticism of zoos and the confinement of wild animals. Others will view it as a loving portrait of a favorite zoo animal.

At just over an hour, Philibert's film still feels long considering his particular approach and his rather languid subject. Philibert's camera does find some visually lovely moments. At one point we see Nenette and the reflection of all the people passing in front of her. This gives us a sense of what Nenette's day must be like people watching. Philibert also gives us a surreal image of the fogged windows of the enclosure and a blurred Nenette moving toward the glass. So at times the director reveals a good eye for detail.

One visitor observes Nenette’s stillness and admires the quality of her “idleness.” He says it's like she's performing an acting exercise he describes as “the space is yours…” He speculates that she is drained by our curiosity but fills her space with astounding virtuosity. As I watched the film I thought of an odd analogy. Nenette is like Garbo – she’s a blank slate that people read anything into and are endlessly fascinated by. If you love sitting and watching animals at the zoo, you’ll want to visit Nenette and see what you come away with.

"Nenette" is unrated but suitable for all ages and is in French with English subtitles.

If you are interested in the San Diego Zoo's apes check out their ape cam and meet all the orangutans. Howard says that for a zookeeper "you definitely need to form a relationship with the animals that you work with and that you care for. The great apes are very intelligent, and they have 24 hours in a day there and you only have 8, and if you really don't work on getting them to know and like you and cooperate because you can't make an animal do something it doesn't want to do. So we don't ever go in with our animals, we're always in a protected environment so we can have physical contact with them but we are always separate from them. And it's very rewarding for the keeper to be able to go in and have the animals recognize you and are happy to see you."

When asked if she had a favorite orangutan or maybe one that was like the grand dame Nenette, Howard was reluctant to show favoritism. But she was willing to say, "The boys are much more laid back so to build an easygoing relationship with them is much quicker and easier to establish but the girls -- and it could have a lot to do with the fact that females are the ones to care for the young so there are a little more reserved in developing and trusting other people and developing new bonds so it's slower and harder to build that relationship. But then at the same time when you do take the extra work and you build it it's even more rewarding because you knew you had to earn it. So for me we have one lady, I call her 'Old Lady,' one orangutan named Janey who's just super sweet. She's been here the longest, since 1984 and she definitely has a following. We also have Clyde he's our big male. But Janey is most like our superstar. She likes to paint and so people know about that and are excited to hear about that. But they are all great."

Companion viewing: "To Be and To Have," "In the Land of the Deaf," "Creature Comforts"


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Photo of Beth Accomando

Beth Accomando
Arts & Culture Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover arts and culture, from Comic-Con to opera, from pop entertainment to fine art, from zombies to Shakespeare. I am interested in going behind the scenes to explore the creative process; seeing how pop culture reflects social issues; and providing a context for art and entertainment.

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