Documentarian reveals how monkey became celebrated filmmaker

Rooftop Films talked with the French director of Capucine, Nieto, who followed a capuchin monkey from her humble beginnings as a helper monkey for a quadriplegic musician to film festival stardom, all because of an obscure Japanese language research center that began teaching animals how to make movies. (Read the Rooftop Films review of Capucine.)

Get tickets — quickly! — for the Thursday night screening of Capucine and the monkey-made film Oedipe along with a live experiment in which Mad Scientist Filmmaker Nieto will attempt to reanimate a dead chicken!

Rooftop Films: How did you find out about the Research Center on Animal Language, the “film school for monkeys” you examine in your film?

Nieto, director of Capucine: I did a fiction [film] before this documentary where I worked with a real monkey — but an actor — and I became interested in monkeys. I started studying monkeys and I discovered that there was a program in Europe and the United States called Helping Hands, [where] they train capuchin monkeys to help disabled people. I started meeting people, scientists, and little by little they put me on the path [to] this Japanese professor, (primatologist Hirokazu) Shibuya, that trained monkeys to become filmmakers. He has this kind of school, as you say, “filmmaker school” of movies in Japan on an island. On this island, they have everything to [teach] different monkeys to do films.

RF: You spent a considerable amount of time at the research center. What was so special about the monkeys that were at this school compared to human film students at schools like USC or NYU who’ve not gone on to any success in the film industry, or the monkey helpers at Helping Hands?

N: There was another experiment, three months before, which was screened by BBC in London. Scientists gave cameras to chimpanzees and they [made] films, but it was only them taking a camera and filming things. But it’s not only a technical thing, it’s more a conceptual thing. It’s not just [about] taking a camera. Capucine (the capuchin monkey auteur who becomes a film-festival darling) understands better the idea of [being] a filmmaker. Capucine is different because she selects parts of movies that she saw before and she edits and then she shoots the same scenes again — but in her own way. That’s the difference. That’s the difference between Capucine and other monkeys.

RF: You’ve worked with many animals in many of your filmed experiments in the past, but how did you decide to make the commitment to go to Japan and make a documentary about Capucine?

N: For me, it was the ideal opportunity because, as a filmmaker, there was a real question for me — from a professional point of view: A well-trained monkey could do my work, and could do [it] maybe better than me! So I thought it was really interesting to do a documentary.

RF: I sense that you feel threatened by monkey filmmakers, specifically Capucine.

N: Totally. When I talked to my producer about Capucine — I’m represented by a production company called Paranoid in the U.S. — he decided to represent Capucine also, as a director for commercials. So Capucine became part of Paranoid! So she’s competition for me now. These monkeys are taking our place!

RF: But, it’s not that all monkeys are able to —

N: No, actually… The only one able to go as far as she did is Capucine. The other monkeys [are] not that high-level with the cameras and in their filmmaking.

RF: You said that Capucine worked by watching other movies and editing them together. Which films inspired her?

N: Professor Shibuya gave her a lot of movies to see, but the ones she prefers are the ones that show other animals, like the (George) Romero film, Monkey Shines — these kinds of movies.

RF: And I saw that in her room in the center, there’s a poster for 2001: A Space Odyssey. She’s a Kubrick fan?

N: Yeah!

RF: Some filmmakers are good with actors, some are good with composition, or action. What are Capucine’s particular talents?

N: I think she’s good at putting together such different things. She’s able to put together a piece of a Japanese television manga thing with a Kubrick film, and then with television news. So she can put everything together and build a story, a fiction, around these.

RF: It’s amazing that a monkey could do that. Not many humans can do that. Was there anything about Capucine’s filmmaking process that has influenced the way you will make your next films?

N: I had the feeling that Capucine wasn’t questioning herself, she just did it without thinking about what happened later. She was just, “Take that, take that, put it together…” and then at the end, maybe it works? And it worked. I think that’s the best thing that she [taught] me. Just do it.

RF: It’s in your documentary that she became difficult during the filming of her movie, Oedipe. What happened?

N: I don’t know, to be honest. I guess the training was very intense for her, and in the end, Professor Shibuya wanted to do his own movie and not allow her to do her work. They started fighting, conceptually.

RF: He became like a meddling producer instead of an impartial researcher?

N: Yes. Exactly.

RF: That must have been difficult to see happen. But that struggle was resolved and Oedipe, which dramatizes the relationship between her former quadriplegic companion and his mother, was completed — after the addition of computer graphics. I find it difficult to believe that she could keep authorship after other artists were involved in completing her work.

N: It’s not just filming things, but directing people, and making sure that everything will be its best. She was there, with the post-production company, just taking a look at what the graphic artists were doing, and she was just saying, that’s OK or not — in her way. I think that helps because it’s a real part of a director, of a filmmaker.

RF: But doesn’t it take away from the accomplishment of a monkey making a movie by herself?

N: I think it’s more accurate with Capucine’s original idea. I think it’s a good thing.

RF: The film screened at Clermont (the International Short Film Festival in Clermont-Ferrand). Was it shown anywhere else?

N: Yes, other film festivals. But the one in Clermont was the first [screening]. Professor Yamamoto, the assistant of Professor Shibuya who now is directing the center in Japan, he was there to present the film with Capucine.

RF: And her helper monkey recipient was there as well — the quadriplegic musician who she cared for. What was his reaction?

N: He was there at the screening in Clermont-Ferrand. He was very touched. There was a big love story there.

RF: At that screening, you also captured reaction from audience members who thought Capucine’s film was derivative. What do you think of that criticism?

N: Nobody can create something from nothing. There’s a creative process. You have to go and look for other things, associate things, put it together and make a new thing. So I think it’s very interesting even if she took scenes from other films — like 2001, Singin’ in the Rain, Nosferatu, Planet of the Apes, Apocalypse Now, E.T., American Beauty, and what else? Citizen Kane, Night of the Hunter

RF: She’s well versed in the film canon!

N: Yeah!

RF: The research center focuses on primates, but what about other animals? Do you think other animals could grasp film concepts and hope to become filmmakers like Capucine?

N: I don’t know, because [there’s] something special about the self-recognition. There is an experiment in the documentary where they put Capucine in front of a mirror and she recognizes herself. I think apes are the only other animals who can recognize [themselves].

RF: Dolphins are self aware. Maybe dolphins could make films?

N: Maybe.

RF: I’m sure others are just going to think it’s ludicrous that a monkey could make a narrative film. After seeing what Capucine can do, what do you say to people who question her abilities, or question if she really made Oedipe herself?

N: That’s the story of science. You know, you can never say, “It’s not possible.” Because one day, there’s one specimen that is more clever than the others. It’s evolution. And things are changing so fast that anything is possible.

For more about the Research Center on Animal Language, visit

Get tickets while they’re still available for a special Rooftop Films event that includes the screening of Capucine and Capucine’s film Oedipe, as well as a live experiment in which Nieto will attempt to reanimate a dead chicken.

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