Be­ing and noth­ing­ness

Pasatiempo - - Moving Images - Rob DeWalt The New Mex­i­can

Nénette, doc­u­men­tary, not rated, in French with sub­ti­tles, CCA Cine­math­eque, 3 chiles

I“There must be times when she can stand this no longer,” an uniden­ti­fied voice says off-cam­era. “Her con­di­tion — it’s in the realm of do­ing noth­ing. It makes you think, Is it that en­vi­able, hav­ing noth­ing to do?”

Born in 1969 in Bor­neo and trans­ferred to the Mé­nagerie du Jardin des Plantes in Paris a few years later, “she” is Nénette, the sub­ject of doc­u­men­tar­ian Nicolas Philib­ert’s ( To Be and To Have, In the Land of the Deaf ) quiet study of an orang­utan whose star at the zoo is fad­ing in tan­dem with her health and sense of joie de vivre. Nénette’s cracked, weath­ered hands and near-ex­pres­sion­less face hint at a ma­jes­tic an­i­mal ap­proach­ing the end of a rel­a­tively long and un­com­mon life played out be­hind glass and steel for the ben­e­fit of a few hun­dred-thou­sand ogling hu­man vis­i­tors each year (orang­utans live an av­er­age of 30 to 35 years in the wild, ac­cord­ing to the film). Philib­ert spares no claus­tro­pho­bic cam­era an­gle in his at­tempt to draw the viewer into Nénette’s in­creas­ingly dreary — and mis­un­der­stood — ex­is­tence.

That isn’t to say this pri­mate’s life has been al­to­gether un­event­ful. “She’s had three hus­bands and wore them all out,” a face­less zoo em­ployee in­forms us. Nénette has also given birth to four chil­dren. One of her sons, Tübo, lives with her, and to en­sure that there are no un­in­tended in­ces­tu­ous off­spring, Nénette gets the oc­ca­sional birth con­trol pill hid­den in her yo­gurt, served with tea in the af­ter­noon.

In scene af­ter scene, Philib­ert keeps his cam­era static (some­times for awk­wardly long pe­ri­ods), fo­cused in­tently on Nénette and her spare sur­round­ings. In the film, the uni­formly uniden­ti­fied hu­mans are heard rather than seen, save for a few re­flec­tions in Nénette’s glass en­clo­sure, which present a kalei­do­scopic view of what she

has wit­nessed with a mix of in­dif­fer­ence, cu­rios­ity, and con­tempt for the bet­ter part of her life: peo­ple on the out­side look­ing in, point­ing, gasp­ing, laugh­ing, pass­ing judg­ment, at­tach­ing hu­man traits to an an­i­mal whose last chap­ter will play out in iso­la­tion within a fac­sim­ile nat­u­ral habi­tat cre­ated mainly for peo­ple’s amuse­ment at a safe dis­tance. Ear­lier in her zoo “ca­reer,” Nénette was some­thing of a diva. “The me­dia likes younger apes,” we’re told. “They’re more com­i­cal.” The cam­era loved her. She loved the cam­era back, and she loved the cam­era lights even more. She bathed in the warmth em­a­nat­ing from those light bulbs, per­haps be­cause the feel­ing re­minded her of an­other place and time.

To hear Nénette’s han­dlers tell it, this ag­ing ape suf­fers more from phys­i­cal ail­ments now than from emo­tional or in­stinc­tual de­tach­ment (the sur­gi­cal re­moval of an ab­scess years ear­lier is blamed for most of her malaise). You may glean a sense of in­sur­mount­able bore­dom and sad­ness in her ex­pres­sions and move­ments, but Nénette’s han­dlers will as­sure you that, in the undis­turbed rain for­est, orang­utans love to sit still and stare into the abyss. How­ever, in Bor­neo, where poach­ing, il­le­gal log­ging, and pal­moil pro­duc­tion con­tinue to shrink the orang­utan’s chance of sur­vival, sit­ting still isn’t re­ally a vi­able op­tion any­more.

Nénette is es­sen­tially a vic­tim of her own rar­ity, for which she has hu­mans to thank. “If there were more of her kind around,” to para­phrase one voice, “she’d prob­a­bly still be in the jun­gle.” Philib­ert steers clear of heated wildlife-con­ser­va­tion pol­i­tics, but some back­ground on the orang­utan’s en­dan­gered sta­tus would have done won­ders to present Nénette as more in­her­ently com­plex than a hairy recre­ational at­trac­tion with age-re­lated is­sues. “The thick­ness of the glass is in pro­por­tion to our fear of get­ting closer [to Nénette],” a zoo em­ployee says. In­ter­est­ingly, Philib­ert struc­tures most of the film’s off-screen com­men­tary in a man­ner that brings au­di­ences closer to their in­se­cu­ri­ties about them­selves. “I think she’s de­pressed, re­ally de­pressed,” one woman whis­pers wor­riedly. “Maybe her hus­band is al­ready dead.” An­other won­ders, “She’s bored, right? Maybe she misses the coun­try she comes from; I miss mine, too.” Of her re­stricted liv­ing space, one man says, “Not much room.” His friend re­sponds, “Well, rents are high in Paris.”

Though opin­ions on the con­fine­ment of an­i­mals vary, Philib­ert’s study of Nénette sub­tly of­fers up a uni­ver­sal truth: zoos are mar­velous mi­cro­cosms of hu­man psy­cho­log­i­cal trans­fer­ence. What we see in our­selves is of­ten eas­ier to swal­low when we point it out in some­thing or some­one else, es­pe­cially when there are no im­me­di­ate ef­fects on our health or hap­pi­ness.

Un­for­tu­nately, peo­ple have done this with Nénette so of­ten that it ap­pears to have taken a toll. “Peo­ple drain her,” one of the film’s nar­ra­tors re­minds us. “She has been drained by our cu­rios­ity.” So, too, has her species.

The abyss stares back at you: Nénette

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