The Human Zoos, Ota Benga Movie
"Human Zoos" is an Ota Benga movie directed by John West. This Ota Benga documentary film is an official selection of the 2017 Oregon Documentary Film Festival. Human Zoos, was also the winner of the Best Editing Award. We selected this film because of the way John West explores a dark part of US history in "Human Zoos." Furthermore, I believe that this is a racially charged story that will mesmerize you with the stories. Above all, this film describes a reality of a time where people were exploited. In ways, I believe, that are unimaginable in today in society. Furthermore, you have to see it to believe it and then wonder why they didn't teach me this chapter in history class.
Synopsis: Human Zoos. An Ota Benga Documentary Film
Often touted as “missing links” between man and apes, these native peoples were harassed, demeaned, and jeered at. Their public display was arranged with the enthusiastic support of the most elite members of the scientific community. And also was promoted uncritically by America’s leading newspapers. The documentary also tells the story of a courageous group of African-American ministers who tried to stop one such 'Human Zoo' in New York City. The documentary features Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Pamela Newkirk, author of Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga.
In September 1906, nearly a quarter of a million people flocked to the Bronx Zoo in New York City. Many came for a startling new exhibit in the Zoo’s Monkey House. But it probably wasn’t a monkey they came to see. We believe it was because of a man. His name was Ota Benga. A pygmy from the African Congo, Ota Benga was exhibited in a cage along with monkeys.
Benga was not alone. He was one of literally thousands of indigenous peoples who were also on public display throughout America in the early twentieth century. Often touted as “missing links” between man and apes. Furthermore, as examples of the “lower” stages of human evolution. Hence, these native peoples were harassed, demeaned, and jeered at. Their public display was arranged with the enthusiastic support of the most elite members of the scientific community. Also it was promoted uncritically by America’s leading newspapers.
Interview With Director John West
Q1: First of all, why submit to the Oregon Documentary Film Festival? I’m based in Seattle, and I was excited to learn about the debut of a film festival in the Pacific Northwest focusing on documentaries.”
Q2: So, is there any special meaning to the title? “My film is titled “Human Zoos: America’s Forgotten History of Scientific Racism.” The title “Human Zoos” refers to a dehumanizing practice in American history. Above all, putting indigenous peoples on public display, sometimes in cages.”
Q3: Why did you choose to tell this particular story? “Several years ago, I read a book about an African named Ota Benga. He was put on public display in the Monkey House of the Bronx Zoo in the early 1900s. I later learned that there was a widespread practice in both the United States and Europe of putting indigenous peoples on public display. In many cases this practice was carried out and promoted not by hucksters but by leading members of America’s scientific community. I am fascinated by the use and abuse of scientific ideas in public policy. I was interested not only in telling the story of what happened but also probing why so many members of the scientific community supported the practice. As I began to work on the story, I found that it had connections with the American eugenics movement. Certainly, they focused on an effort to breed better humans by controlling the direction of human evolution. As a result, the documentary also delves into that story. There are also connections between what happened in the past and today’s white supremacists. One of the points I hoped to make in this film is that we don’t get beyond the past by forgetting it. We need to face it in order to make sure the same mistakes don’t happen again.”
Q4: Did you discover certain story elements during the production of this film that you never expected? “I was able to find a lot of fascinating material in the digitized archives of old newspapers, material that hadn’t been used before and that provided some insights into why people did what they did.”
Q5: Furthermore, what kind of audience reaction are you getting to this film? “My film will be having its public premiere at this film festival! Up to now, it has only had a few private screenings, the largest of which was around 90 people. The reactions at the private screenings have been positive, but somber. I think some people were shocked at what they learned. After the violence in Charlottesville, VA this past summer, I added a new ending to the film because I found a pretty explicit connection between the issues I was covering with some things being debated right now. Only one audience has seen the new ending, and I think it made some of the viewers uncomfortable to how the scientific racism of the past was rearing its ugly head in a new way today.”
Q6: Finally, you have completed a documentary film, which is a huge achievement. Do you have any advice for a future filmmaker that is about to start a documentary project? Advice that you wish you had been given before you started yours? “Especially if you are working on a limited budget (as I was), the more you can plan out in advance, the better. Also, learning to think visually is important when writing a script. My background is as a former college professor and as someone with training in journalism. So I have more experience with the written word than with visuals. When I started learning how to make documentaries, I had to stretch myself to write for a medium where what you show visually (and how you show it) is just as important (sometimes more important) than the words you use. I also learned that you need to be as concise as possible. Wordiness doesn’t work well in the visual medium.”