Let’s save the gibbons! The wild gibbon, a sub-species of ape and a very close relative of yours and mine, is in danger of extinction. Like, grave danger. The Center: Gibbons and Guardians is a just about hour-long documentary profiling the Gibbon Conservation Center near Santa Clarita in Southern California. Directed by Alex M. Azmi, who co-wrote it with Michael Thau, the film opens with the song of the gibbon as a drone shot glides over desert landscapes bathed in the glow of the morning sun. One half expects to hear “Hakuna Matata” begin to play.
We quickly hone in on what looks like a summer camp but is actually the Gibbon Conservation Center, an expansive wildlife conservancy founded by lifelong gibbon researcher Alan Mootnick. The drone peeks into several habitat enclosures, and we get our first glimpses of these playful, impish, and tremendously vocal creatures. As the day begins, the gibbons swing like primate versions of Tarzan from branch to branch in enclosures explicitly constructed for them.
The Center began as Mootnick’s pet project but soon matured into a world-renowned reserve that works in combination with zoos and as a nerve center from which to espouse education on gibbons to zoos and veterinarians around the world. See, education on gibbon care and preservation is essential because the species is endangered. That is mostly due to deforestation, poaching, and the destruction of their natural habitats resulting from corporations sourcing palm oil. Gibbons in the wild are vital from an environmental standpoint, acting as, as Chris Roderick, President of the GCC Board, puts it, “They are the farmers of the forest. We need them to exist.”
“ The wild gibbon, a sub-species of ape…is in danger of extinction.”
During The Center: Gibbons and Guardians, we are introduced to several “star” gibbons at the Center, including Pierre, Asterisks, Truman, and the self-designated diva of the Center, Violet. All of the men and women who guide us through the Center speak of these gibbons as though they are relaying information about their own children, which is precisely how they feel about these animals. By the end, the viewer has become invested in their stories (which gibbons are hooking up, for example) and personalities (one gibbon keeps interfering in his mom’s dating life).
Several staff members educate viewers on what is so special about these animals and talk to us about how they found their way there in the first place. The Center: Gibbons and Guardians does a good job of presenting a nice cross-section of staff members and other professions that utilize the facility for research purposes (for example, one of the interviewees is a Ph.D. candidate in ethnomusicology). All interviewees are of various ages, and most began at the GCC as volunteers. Two former volunteers who are now on staff at the Center met at the facility and subsequently married. The couple’s young son practically has the entire area as his playground, which is amazing! But no matter their age or culture gaps, they all share one thing in common: a diehard passion for preserving the heritage of these small-bodied apes (as opposed to their large-bodied cousins, orangutans, gorillas, bonobos, and chimpanzees).
Like the animals showcased, Azmi utilizes a playful tone, employing bouncy music and occasionally fun edits to convey his message. The tonal connection between the subjects and the movie’s presentation, even during the discussion of a devastating California wildfire that threatens the Center, is consistent throughout.
The Center: Gibbons and Guardians isn’t your typical feature-length documentary. It’s not stylishly produced with a sexy subject matter and boasting a celebrity narrator. The film would be perfectly at home on a cable channel such as Animal Planet. What it does, and what all good documentaries should do, is foster interest in the subject matter. In this case, let’s make sure that these magnificent creatures endure and don’t disappear into the annals of history forever.
"…utilizes a playful tone, employing bouncy music and occasionally fun edits to convey his message."