Dr. Jared Taglialatela of Ape Initiative on SASQUATCH SUNSET

Every film’s journey from festival premiere to theatrical release is unique, but David and Nathan Zellner’s SASQUATCH SUNSET, which made its world premiere at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, boasts a truly rare distinction: screening for bonobos.

The absurdist yet tender Bleecker Street release follows a year in the life of a Sasquatch family, played by Riley Keough, Jesse Eisenberg, Nathan Zellner, and Christophe Zajac-Denek in prosthetic bodysuits to captivating effect...and not only to human audiences. In April, Eisenberg and the Zellners screened the film for a community of bonobos at the Ape Initiative in Des Moines, Iowa. We spoke to Ape Director President and Director Dr. Jared Taglialatela about his work at the Ape Initiative, the importance of conservation, behavior among bonobos in the wild, and the cinematic tastes of bonobos under their care.

Science & Film: Could you start by telling me about your research and the work of the Ape Initiative?

Jared Taglialatela: Ape Initiative is the only bonobo research center in the world. We are home to seven bonobos, and we work with researchers and scientists across the globe to study bonobo behavior. We use that information to inspire people to care about this species and promote their conservation in the wild.

S&F: How did your bonobos arrive in Des Moines, Iowa? They’re native to Central Africa, is that right?

JT: Yes, they are only naturally found in the Democratic Republic of Congo in a small section of the Congo Basin. All the bonobos we have were born in the United States under human care. None of them were taken from the wild. They used to [take animals from the wild] often for endangered species into the 1980s, even into the 1990s, but that has since been outlawed.

S&F: Can you tell me more about your enrichment program for the bonobos? How does screening SASQUATCH SUNSET fit within it?

JT: I always tell people bonobos are as smart as we are, for the same reasons we are: their natural ecology. They spend time in a forest in large social groups, mostly foraging for food. Bonobos are famous for extractive foraging, or getting at unavailable foods. That means remembering locations for foods, or figuring out they need to use a stone or stick to get something they otherwise couldn't reach.

In terms of caring for those animals in captivity, we try to emulate as much of what their experience would be in the natural world by keeping both their hands and their minds active throughout the day. Sometimes that involves puzzles or computer tasks. They all readily use a touch-screen computer. Other times, it involves things that are less interactive and more for their enjoyment, like watching movies.

S&F: What types of movies do they watch? Do they each have distinctive tastes?

JT: They definitely do. We have a number of ways the bonobos can choose to watch videos. There’s a big touch-screen computer they can sit at, as you see in the Sasquatch Sunset video. Teco will scroll on Netflix to pick his own shows or movies that way. He taps the icon much like you would use your remote. Teco is our youngest bonobo, and he has similar taste to a young child. He loves FROZEN and MOANA, all things animated. Though he's been very into IS IT CAKE? lately. It’s a Netflix show where they display five different items appearing as the same object out. You vote which one you think is cake, and they cut into them to see which it is. He loves the reveal.

S&F: Too funny!

JT: Elikya, one of our females, loves iPhone videos. She'll come point at your cell phone, then wait for you to get it out to show her videos. Kanzi, our oldest, is very big into action movies. He really likes CATWOMAN. NACHO LIBRE is another one [he likes], he likes physical comedy. Nyota is kind of a more of a sensitive guy. He really likes TWILIGHT, anything with Kristen Stewart in it. He's also very interested in musicals. I think he likes emotional pieces.

Not all the bonobos like watching things up close to the screen. Some of them build a blanket nest and like to watch from a cozy spot wherever they see fit.

S&F: Very relatable. Do they have their own Netflix profiles? I'd think that algorithmic data would be interesting.

JT: You’re absolutely right.

S&F: Netflix, this is your call to action. Have you shown them any of the PLANET OF THE APES films?

JT: That’s a good question. I feel like Kanzi would like the original, but we try to steer away from violence. No monsters. Even SHREK is sometimes too scary for Teco, which shows how much bonobos relate to what’s on the screen.

S&F: To that point, can you tell me a little bit more about how bonobos communicate? I imagine that those in your care and those in the wild may have different communication strategies.

JT: One of the unique things about some of the bonobos that live here is they can use these symbols called lexigrams to communicate with their human caregivers. You can ask them what they’d like to eat in English, and they can point to grapes or celery. Or they can ask to play chase with you.

One of the important parts for our staff to consider is that not all the bonobos have that language tool, and we must understand how the bonobos naturally communicate their preferences or needs. They have complex vocalizations and make a lot of different facial expressions. Those individuals that use lexigrams sometimes integrate those gestures and vocalizations, and they even can combine symbols into complex multi-source signals as well.

For now, most have very high-pitched squeaky vocalizations. I can’t even make a noise that high. The fundamental frequency of my voice is probably like 120 Hertz, and for a bonobo, it’s like a tenfold increase. Given they’re native to a very dense foliage environment, it could be that high frequency helps them localize each other more easily, but that’s only a theory so far.

S&F: I’ve heard bonobos characterized as humans’ closest living relatives. Is that defined by shared behaviors like those you’ve illustrated or genetic data?

JT: From a phylogenetic perspective, bonobos and chimpanzees are humans' closest living relatives. The cool thing is we are also their closest living relatives. Humans, bonobos, and chimpanzees are more closely related to each other than any of us are to any other animals including gorillas and orangutans. From a strictly genetic standpoint, they're both our closest relatives. From a behavioral adaptation standpoint, there have been arguments that bonobos represent a closer version of the ancestral human because being restricted to one part of Central Africa, there haven’t been specializations for new or competitive environments. Bonobos don’t live sympathetically with other apes, whereas chimpanzees do in some cases.

S&F: You’ve remarked that the filmmakers ‘nailed a lot of the stuff’ in SASQUATCH SUNSET. Can you elaborate on what aspects of the film rang true to you?

JT: Yes, a lot of the quiet moments in SASQUATCH SUNSET are exactly the type of quiet moments we see the bonobos having where they're foraging. They may be eating separately, but then they come together and have intimate moments or caring moments of grooming. The film did a good job of [depicting] that. It felt like I was watching a documentary about Sasquatches, not what one would normally expect of a Hollywood film. I think the bonobos really enjoyed those scenes.

S&F: What else did you observe?

JT: [The Zellners] were also able to convey a hierarchy between the four Sasquatches which the bonobos were able to pick up on. At one point, when the alpha Sasquatch was walking forward with the family, Teco punched the screen. He didn't punch the screen at any other time, so it speaks to Nathan Zellner’s great acting that Teco read the Sasquatch’s behavior as dominant or aggressive.

Also, that there is no dialogue. Bonobos don't have what we would call human language, but they do a lot of things which sit atop human language, for lack of a better way to say it. The actors did a good job of communicating with gestures and body language. Think, if you were to take words away from humans for a long time, they'd resort to more fundamental communicative signals.

S&F: Have you shown the bonobos any silent era films? The expressive style of acting of early cinema comes to mind.

JT: I am not a silent film expert but yes, that exaggerated expression would be interesting to them. There’s one last communication thing I want to touch on because it was my favorite part of the film.

S&F: Please do.

JT: The Sasquatches do something in the movie where they’re knocking on trees and waiting for a response. I think that has a nice conservation message, calling to the forest to see who’s calling back and who can hear you. Bonobos are endangered and they make that type of broadcast call all the time.

The filmmakers hadn’t come to watch bonobos or interacted with the apes before, yet they had this haunting segment of calling for others and not hearing anyone call back... that was such a powerful conservation message. It’s a little heartbreaking, but that nod to extinction was so powerful.

S&F: Loneliness at the species level, that’s an emotional wallop. It’s the inverse of PLANET OF THE APES. ‘This is our planet but it’s not our planet.’

JT: I knew then that our missions intersected.

S&F: Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

JT: Bonobos are the only great ape species that are matriarchal. I’ll exclude humans from that, though I think you could make an argument that humans are matriarchal too. I’m sure people would disagree with that. It’s female coalitions that determine the direction of the group, and that gives bonobos some interesting characteristics that you might not think of when considering great apes in the forest. I like to make sure that people understand that aspect.

I’ll expand to say one more thing: Bonobos are so much like us, but sometimes in trying to compare them to us, we lose the value of just how wonderfully unique they are as a species themselves. Yet, you look at one in the eye or you get it close enough to observe one’s behavior, and it’s impossible not to see something that reminds you of yourself. What we’re really trying to do is to get people to connect. Once you take that first step from human to all the other species, it opens a bridge. Maybe you look at your own backyard differently. Our impact can be much greater than any of us realize.

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