Donna McRae is lovingly devoted to animals and animal welfare. Knowing her personally, I am in constant awe of her passionate and well-informed stance on the treatment of animals across the globe; whether it be the hushed abuse of donkeys in various countries where they are forced to be “beasts of burden” or numerous “festivals” or “cultural traditions” that subject innocent creatures to all manner of abject abuse. McRae is also a filmmaker – both working in the documentary arena as well as helming feature narratives, where she is a leading player here in Australia as one of the new wave of genre directors primarily taking on horror and fantasy. In her film Cobby: The Other Side of Cute, McRae somehow manages to balance the two art forms by presenting a story told in a documentary format, but loaded with a steady and sturdy narrative backbone that plays out like a personal quest or some variant of the “hero’s journey”. Of course, many great documentary films do this – they reject simply presenting history without a personal “voice” and in turn deliver something with an individual purpose. McRae’s film is a perfect example of this.
Cobby’s Hobbies was a children’s television program that aired in Adelaide for a year during the sixties. It featured a young chimpanzee named Cobby who would undertake varied jobs in each episode and get up to silly antics whilst narrated by a voice over – much like a sophomoric take on the cult favorite Lancelot Link. Like many television series of our childhood, Cobby’s Hobbies haunted the film maker for many years to come, and as much as the show was an escape (a half an hour of fun to be had in suburban Adelaide for a young Donna McRae) it was also something that hit a nerve in the adult Donna, who began questioning the appeal of such a show, the concept behind having a chimp be a TV star and the ethical issues concerning animals in entertainment. What she uncovers is an involving story about Cobby and his human family, which stems from the incredible legacy of Jewish immigrant entertainment history, where a young man and his family would take in chimps as well as baby elephants and have them perform in acts on variety shows and on the road. McRae manages to have not only the daughters of the entertainer featured as talking heads – discussing living with chimps and having an entire childhood revolving around their father’s work – but she also finds solidarity amongst fellow Adelaide residents who like her, were “touched” by Cobby including rock musician Clare Moore of The Moodists among other bands.
There are wonderfully constructed poignant moments in McRae’s film and the degree of sentiment and emotional pull compared to political statements made are always finely tuned and equally tangibly mesmerising and important. Especially captivating is the sequence where she meets the now aged Cobby who currently lives in captivity in the San Francisco Zoo with two older female chimps (one supposedly the design inspiration for Yoda of the Star Wars films). She confesses that she may have to deal with Cobby “turning his back to her”, and when he does, this symbolic and heart wrenching moment is made all the more tear-inducing because we come to understand the pure tragedy in animals that have faced years of questionable treatment. “I remember the first time I saw him at San Francisco Zoo,” says McRae, “I thought, ‘This fully-grown chimpanzee can’t be Cobby’, but really the Cobby I knew from TV was a total construct, completely different to this beautiful, sentient being I was standing in front of.”
During the course of her research, McRae would discover that Cobby would face the horrors of what is to unfold once “cute” wears off in certain arenas of the entertainment industry. He would fall victim to this notion of the sweet, funny, impish monkey suddenly growing into an adult which would cause concern for some people and eventually suffer the rejection that will lead into a harrowing realism that will leave him a “broken” animal. As much as Cobby would be considered a “fortunate” chimpanzee from his kind of background (as many would be subjected to horrible lives post-“cute” involving vivisection, drug testing and more), there is no doubt when he appears on screen in his senior years that this magnificent beast has seen some things his kind should never have. There is a quote in the film that actually summarises this sentiment profoundly where once you have looked into the eyes of a primate, you are forever changed. This documentary celebrates that.
However, what makes McRae’s film perpetually fascinating and almost effortlessly multi-dimensional is the fact that she does not simplify the idea of “exploitation”. What she does is also express through the medium of documentary film making the idea of animal entertainment as a complex and often misunderstood industry. As someone who has researched animals in film for a number of years, and also as an avid animal-lover myself, it has always been an ongoing argument (for sake of a better word) on my behalf to defend the likes of many wonderful animal trainers from the dawn of cinema and television who are not just working in an industry that calls for critters to “perform”, but also activists in their own rights as well. Having been the author of two books that deal with animals in film – “Massacred By Mother Nature: Exploring the Natural Horror Film”, a book all about the eco-horror film subgenre (a component of horror that is oft-super pro-animal and environmentalism) and “Nope, Nothing Wrong Here: The Making of Cujo”, a monograph about the Stephen King adapted film about the titular rabid St. Bernard, a lot of conversations have been had with animal trainers who have worked with many different creatures who they all admires, respect and most importantly love. When you consider the masterful work from people such as Moe Di Sesso (Willard, Annie), Karl Lewis Miller (The Pack, Cujo, White Dog), Susan Backlinie (Day of the Animals), Frank and Juanita Inn (Benji, For the Love of Benji) and many more, there is a long history of people who are champions of animals and animal rights, therefore the Hollywood machine can be positive. But there is absolutely no doubting or trivialising as to what happened to Cobby and his lesser fortunate brothers and sisters. For as many films and TV shows that featured apes and other primates that were treated with upmost respect and tenderness (films such as Link and Monkey Shines), there have been many that have had dark legends arise from the anecdotal production sidelines. As McRae points out, “Most chimps in entertainment suffered horrific retirements. They ended up in roadside zoos, kept in cages, or worse, they were used for biomedical research. We’re talking about animals that have very long lives – Cobby will be 60 in June this year – and are as intelligent as a four-year old human. These are horrible conditions for them to live out their lives.” McRae’s documentary is a testament to the importance of animal liberation and the absolute necessity of compassion and understanding, and as much as it is a film about one woman’s love and dedication to giving a voice to the voiceless and her journey from seeing a chimp on TV as a child to realising how this not-so-superstar’s life panned out, it is also a commentary on the human condition and the age old concept of “growing out of being wanted or loved”.