Washington, DC, filmmaker Irene A. Magafan believes humans can learn a lot from the endangered bonobo, a member of the great ape family.
And she hopes that those who watch her film, “The Bonobo Connection,” will be able to see a little bit of themselves in the animals. Magafan’s film will be shown Saturday, March 28, at Bridge of Life in downtown Hagerstown as part of the Maryland International Film Festival-Hagerstown. The film is part of Short Fest 4, the films for which will begin at 2:10 pm
“I’m a huge natural-history advocate, especially for wildlife,” she said. “I was really able to hone in on my interests and my passion for the great apes, (and) the product of that became my thissis film, ‘The Bonobo Connection.'”
Magafan, 34, earned a Master of Fine Arts from American University’s School of Communication.
Originally, Magafan was working on a film about great apes, but a colleague suggested she turn her attention specifically to the bonobos.
“I had never heard of them before. I started doing my research and I kind of fell in love with their species, completely fell in love with them,” she said.
She discovered the nonprofit organization Bonobo Conservation Initiative, which has offices in Washington, DC, and the Congo in Central Africa, home of the bonobos. The organization became Magafan’s fiscal sponsor and she began a working partnership with it.
“It was a great relationship. They had some great contacts for me,” she said. “I was able to dive into the bonobo world and realize so little had been done on them. They have such a powerful story to tell. When a filmmaker does a story on an animal, they became the voice for the animal that doesn’t have a voice.”
Magafan first worked with the Columbus Zoo in Ohio, which is Jack Hanna’s home base. There, she observed a family of bonobos, and was able to film and study them. It was there, she said, that she fell in love with the animals.
“The first couple times, I went out there without any of my film equipment so they could get to know me and my face, my behavior and how they made me feel,” she said. “One thing I could never forget was when I was looking into their eyes, I got right down to their level — eye-wise — and when they looked back at me, I did not feel a status difference. I didn’t feel that I was superior to them because I was a human. We are so closely related to the bonobos, and we have so much to learn from how they live that I felt like I an equal. I really did. In fact, I almost felt they were superior. They look into your soul. When a bonobo looks at you, they’re not looking at you, they’re looking at you.”
Through her research and observations, Magafan learned many things about the animals that were once referred to as pygmy chimpanzees.
“One of the things that I love and I’m so fascinated by and such a big fan of is that they live in a matriarchal society. There are only a few other species, like dolphins and elephants (that do that),” she said. “The females completely run the show.”
The male bonobos stay with their mothers for their entire life.
“While the females become more independent, they go out and do their thing and build their families and relationships,” she said. “The males bow down to the females. They’re completely matriarchal. They’re also bisexual. They are very much free-loving apes. They’ve been known to be called the hippie chimps, the ‘make-love-not-war ape.’”
Although they’re associated with chimpanzees because they tend to look like a longer version of a chimp, Magafan said bonobos are “the polar opposite of chimps.”
“They’re not violent. When they’re stressed out, then tend to have sex to alleviate tension. They have eye-to-eye sex. I’ve seen it over and over again. They don’t do it just for copulation and to create babies. They actually enjoy the act of it, just like humans do. It’s pretty amazing,” she said. “They are so smart. They’re so witty. They form alliances, systems of cooperation. It’s almost like they’re Buddhist. They have this Buddhist way about them. They have these incredible mantras and this energy that surrounds them. They make the best of every situation that they’re in. They are so incredibly — all the great apes are so incredibly intelligent — but they are so peaceful. They don’t want to get into arguments. It’s something that we need to pay attention to here. Because I believe while I was doing the film, they made me think of us, humans.”
Bonobos are on the endangered-species list. Magafan said experts don’t have an exact number of how many exist, but estimate between 5,000 and 50,000.
“That number has shrunk a little bit. It’s a pretty big range. The reason why we don’t have these particular numbers is, the one good thing they have going for them, is that they live in the very, very dense forest of the Democratic Republic of Congo. They’re pretty protected from other animals. They don’t have to compete for food like chimpanzees do. Chimps and gorillas live in the same region, but bonobos don’t,” she said. “Why are they going extinct? It’s because of humans. It’s not nature, it’s humans because we are tearing down their habitats, we’re doing illegal logging, we’re hunting them down to eat and bringing them back to market. Because the people in the Congo don’t know any better. It’s really quite horrific what’s happening. So their numbers continue to decline. We’re trying to protect the areas there for them.”
The human link
There’s a good reason why Magafan finds a common link with humans. She said bonobos share 98.7 percent of their DNA with humans.
“Bonobos are more closely related to humans than they are to gorillas, DNA wise,” she said.
In a way, human beings’ actions are related to those of bonobos and chimpanzees.
“We have a bonobo in us and a chimpanzee. We have that violent side and we have that peaceful side,” she said. “I just wanted to give a voice to these guys because they are like many of the species there: highly endangered. They live in the wild in a very important part of the world. I knew there was a really big strong conservation message here that needed to be told.”
But it’s more than DNA that connects humans and bonobos.
“For sure the way they carry themselves. If you take away the fact they’re all hairy, we’re all the same,” Magafan said. “They have five fingers. We have five fingers. They have five toes. We have five toes. They have an opposable thumb on their foot, which allows them to grab and move in certain ways. I took a lot of close-up pictures of their hands because it’s a pretty human hand. Our appendages, our body parts, are so similar. The way they carry themselves, the way they eat. The scratch themselves, they want to sit down, they want to play.
In the film, she features a series of juxtapositions where a bonobo is shown doing an activity, then a human does it.
“It’s pretty neat to compare,” she said.
Magafan has discovered other common traits between the apes and humans.
“The way that they live. We strive for a peaceful environment. We strive for collaboration, community. They do the same thing” she said. “There are a lot of similarities in how they live and how they look.”
From conceptualization to post-production, it took Magafan three years to complete “The Bonobo Connection.”
Magafan, who won an Emmy for her work on “Eco Views: The Chesapeake Bay,” has received accolades for her current film.
Last week, she was recognized by Women in Film and Video of Washington, DC, which “is dedicated to advancing the career development and achievement for professionals working in all areas of screen-based media and related disciplines,” according to its website. WIFV featured Magafan as one of its “35 Days/31 Women.”
For added star power, Magafan, actress and activist Ashley Judd narrates the film. Judd was familiar with bonobos and had seen the apes up close.
“She graciously narrated the film for me. She was great to work with. She’s a wonderful person and a huge animal advocate. I approached her and she didn’t know who I was,” she said. “She graciously came onboard to narrate the film and really give it the voice that I was looking for.”
Magafan said she has learned a lot about herself as a filmmaker through “The Bonobo Connection.”
“It taught me discipline. You have to really hone in on your craft. You have to have passion. If you don’t believe in the story or believe in something, you’re not going to make it with that film. You really have to believe in your story because it’s going to be hard. There were times when I wasn’t quite sure what direction the film was going into and I got really discouraged with my editor. But if you believe in the story, it will come together. … And when I would think about the bonobos, it was easy. I would think, ‘I’m doing this for them. I’m not giving up.”’”
She said the project also helped her grow as a filmmaker, not only helping her hone her craft and “stretch as an artist,” but teaching her the value of teamwork.
“I also had an incredible team who believed in the cause, who believed in what they were doing,” she said. “The collaboration was huge.”
Paying it forward
Magafan said she hopes the audience will be able to connect with the bonobos and want to do something for them.
“When they start to understand a little bit about their world, they want to help,” she said. “That’s what I love. I feel that as a filmmaker, when an audience starts to create a dialogue, I’ve done my part as a filmmaker, as a storyteller. It’s so incredibly validating to put these pieces together onto the screen for an audience to watch and then for them to have positive feedback and positive reactions to the film. It’s such a great experience. It’s like, ‘Yep, I should be doing this.’”
And, she said, she wants viewers to walk away with a bigger understanding that animals are valuable.
“Animals deserve to have freedom. They were put here on this planet. We have so much to learn from them and it’s not one-sided. They deserve to be treated with respect, and we’re all sharing this planet. I want people to understand that there’s not a status difference, that we’re not superior to bonobos, we’re not superior to any animal just because they’re a different species then us. They just happen to live differently. They happen to look differently. I really would love for people jump on the bonobos’ cause and learn about the great apes and learn how they can become involved in such an important relative of ours. Even if they learn just three knew things about bonobos they’ve never heard before, and they can just start talking about them and when you get involved.”
If you go
WHAT: “The Bonobo Connection”
WHEN: Saturday, March 28; part of Short Fest 4, films being shown beginning at 2:10 pm
WHERE: Bridge of Life, 14 S. Potomac St., downtown Hagerstown
See complete Maryland International Film Festival schedule on page XX
For more information about the film, go to www.thebonoboconnection.com