Back when Donna McRae was growing up in Adelaide in the ‘70s, she would regularly tune in to an American show called Cobby’s Hobbies, starring a chimpanzee named Cobby, no less, and featuring an incredibly catchy theme song.
“I think Casper the Friendly Ghost and The Munsters – which were next in the timeslot – probably sparked my interest in filmmaking, but Cobby’s theme song was up there in that canon.”
It’s appropriate that McRae mentions those other two shows, as up until now her filmmaking – most notably 2011’s Johnny Ghost and last year’s Lost Gully Road – has mainly concerned itself with foreboding atmospheres and apparitions. So, why turn to Cobby?
“I have been working on Cobby since 2014. Michael Vale (co-director) and I realised early in the process that the story was becoming part of our lives so we decided that it would be interesting to document what we were learning about Cobby’s journey. Neither of us knew much about chimpanzees, so it was a huge learning curve for both of us.
“I am very interested in animal rights, and stopped eating meat some years ago,” McRae continues. “I have two close friends who have been vegetarians all their life and they had a huge impact on me from an early age. When we got Pancho our Schipperke 12 years ago it caused me to think more about the mistreatment of animals, so I have tried to be mindful of their treatment in everyday life – like what products I choose, what I wear etc. However, I had no idea about animals in entertainment. I knew about the mistreatment of horses in film and wondered about chimpanzees, but also thought that they were ok. They looked so cute and cuddly, always smiling, so they must be having fun. The trajectory of this film chronicles my journey and eventual uncovering of the truth. I hope to make something about donkeys next. In Greece last year, I saw their mistreatment up close and it is heartbreaking. Donkeys are the most abused animals in the world.”
Although McRae is quick to say that the film takes an animal rights stance, for the viewer this is not evident until the last act of the film. Prior to that, the audience is hooked by McRae’s personal quest to uncover the origins of the show, its producer and Cobby’s owner and a glimpse into showbiz from another time.
“I feel guilty that I loved this program, and guilty that I still look at the episodes with some sort of glee,” Mcrae admits. “The program, made in the 1960s, has all the hallmarks of those great years of vintage television. I had no idea that Cobby was a baby and was taken from his mother, possibly being put on a boat from Africa, scared out of his wits, to travel to another country when he was only about a month old. However, Cobby was one of the relatively lucky ones. He has been taken care of all his life. Most other chimpanzee entertainers didn’t have it so lucky.
“We knew that we wanted to just present all aspects without judgement,” she continues about the scripting of the documentary. “We spent a lot of time planning for this. Our wonderful editor Uri Mizrahi also felt that this was the best way to work with the material. Cobby’s story and that of his ‘foster family’ is very interesting, and we wanted to respect all the varying positions that were brought out in the interviews. Once we all decided on how we would tell the story, it just came together. We felt it was important that the film is not a finger pointing exercise, but rather a story about a particular animal’s journey. By telling it in this way, we hope to raise awareness about the problems of animals in entertainment and how we can choose to say no to, say, riding on elephants in Thailand, watching trained dolphins and whales in theme parks, letting donkeys carry luggage up steep hills with no water, and, sadly, going to wildlife parks in Africa to kill our most exotic animals that are on endangered lists.”
Donna McRae’s approach to her filmmaking career is unique in this country. Her full time job is teaching film at Deakin University in Melbourne, and she usually works with her students as crew members on her productions. With COBBY, her academic world was also able to help when making the film.
“The film was a small research project at Deakin University. They had an initiative, spearheaded by Deb Verhoeven when she was working there, called ‘Research My World’ whereby we used Pozible to raise some funds. I hoped that I could take our idea and fund it this way. It was the first time I had ever considered making a documentary so I thought it may be a good way to start. Ours was a successful campaign and raised above the target, then I received a small project grant from the university in order to finish it. This meant that we could go out and make it ourselves without waiting for finance. However, it seems that when you do something independently here, it’s harder to break into the system in terms of festivals. Overseas it’s been very well received – we had our World Premiere at the San Francisco DocFest (Cobby lives in San Francisco) and all his former keepers and long-term fans came along. We also had a screening in Kansas City (Kansas International Film Festival) where the original TV show was made, so that was fun too. I think that a lot of filmmakers are looking at ways to make work outside the system these days. It depends on what you are making I suppose.”