Their unique relationship started 20 years ago as a scientific study. It evolved into much, much more. Humorous and emotional, this moving film offers a rare and extraordinary insight into the lives of a remarkable ape and his adopted mother, Lynn.
“He is like a son to me” says Dr Lynn Miles as she looks proudly at the 350 lb orang-utan lounging on the lawn. “It was like going to collect a foster child”, says Lynn as she recalls the drive she made back in 1978 to Zoo Atlanta at the start of her research project. “Out of fear I almost turned back, but the dream of finding out how an orang-utan could adapt to human culture and learn to express his feelings was too tempting. But from the moment I started looking after him at nine months old, I vowed that I would give him the same fulfilment and opportunities in life that I would give my own child”.
Lynn’s dream is to discover if orang-utans can live, think and feel like humans. To do this, she first had to teach Chantek sign language. Within two months he made his first signs. “Chantek is a very independent, thoughtful and resourceful character” says Lynn, “if he wants to speaks to someone in sign and they haven’t learnt it – Chantek will teach them. He knows what he likes; ice-cream, painting and wrestling, and he knows what he doesn’t like – dogs and cats, particularly tigers!”.
Tragedy hit seven years ago when Lynn’s funding was revoked and Chantek was taken away. “The feeling of loss was unbearable – it was like losing my child. I don’t think many people really understood that”. After a long separation, Lynn and Chantek were recently reunited. “It was an emotional and nerve wracking time – would he even remember me? What would he think when he saw me again? Would he feel betrayed?”. When the hatch was lifted for the first time Chantek ignored her. Lynn signed to him “What do you want?”. Eventually he replied “You open the door and get the car”. For Lynn it was an incredible moment – despite years of separation he still remembered her. Now at the age of 20, Chantek is about to start training again.
They Call Him Chantek follows Lynn’s mission to get Chantek to talk through a voice synthesiser. Filmed over 12 months and incorporating archive footage dating back to when he was a few months old, the film charts the life and evolution of Chantek and the pioneering woman who raised him. Can Chantek communicate with other apes and act as mediator between species? Can he relay how orang-utans think and feel? Their story gives the world a rare insight into ape intelligence.
“A really moving , and revealing documentary about ape intelligence” – Daily Telegraph
New York Film Festival 2000 – Finalist for Best Science and Technology Documentary
- Narrator:William Hootkins
- Photography:John Davey
- Music:Michael Josephs
- Editor:Carl Thomson
- Producer/Director:Jane-Marie Franklyn