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“Human Zoos” Directed by John West

"Human Zoos" is a documentary film directed by John West.

John West explores a dark part of US history in "Human Zoos." A racially charged story that will mesmerize you with the stories and reality of a time where people were exploited in ways that are unimaginable in today in society. You have to see it to believe it and then wonder why they didn't teach you this chapter in history class.

  • Film Name: "Human Zoos" 
  • Director: Directed by John West
  • Cinematographer: Keith Pennock
  • Narrator: Andres Williams
  • Composer: Donnie Alan
  • Editor Rachel Adams
  • Runtime: 48 minutes and 34 seconds
  • Screening: Saturday, November 11th, 2017
  • Website | Evolution News & Science Article | IMDb Link | LinkedIn
  • Tagline: "Human Zoos tells the story of how thousands of indigenous peoples were put on public display in America in the early decades of the twentieth century."

Thousands of indigenous peoples were put on public display in America in the early decades of the twentieth century.

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Synopsis:

Often touted as “missing links” between man and apes, these native peoples were harassed, demeaned, and jeered at. Their public display was arranged with the enthusiastic support of the most elite members of the scientific community, and it was promoted uncritically by America’s leading newspapers. The documentary also tells the story of a courageous group of African-American ministers who tried to stop one such 'Human Zoo' in New York City. The documentary features Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Pamela Newkirk, author of Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga. 

In September 1906, nearly a quarter of a million people flocked to the Bronx Zoo in New York City. Many came for a startling new exhibit in the Zoo’s Monkey House. But it wasn’t a monkey they came to see. It was a man. His name was Ota Benga. A pygmy from the African Congo, Ota Benga was exhibited in a cage along with monkeys.

Benga was not alone. He was one of literally thousands of indigenous peoples who were put on public display throughout America in the early twentieth century. Often touted as “missing links” between man and apes and as examples of the “lower” stages of human evolution, these native peoples were harassed, demeaned, and jeered at. Their public display was arranged with the enthusiastic support of the most elite members of the scientific community, and it was promoted uncritically by America’s leading newspapers.

Human Zoos tells the horrifying story of this effort to dehumanize entire classes of people in the name of science. It will also tell the story of the courageous African-American ministers in New York City who tried to stop what was going on. Finally, the documentary will expose how some organizations are still trying to cover up their involvement in what happened and re-write the past.

The documentary featuresl interviews with a number of experts, including Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Pamela Newkirk, author of Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga.

"Human Zoos" Director John West

Interview with John West:

We had a chance to catch up with Director John West to get a behind-the-scenes look at this powerful documentary film, Human Zoos.

  1. Why did you think that the Oregon Documentary Film Festival was a good place to submit and screen your film? “I’m based in Seattle, and I was excited to learn about the debut of a film festival in the Pacific Northwest focusing on documentaries.”
  2. What is the title of your film and is there any special meaning to the title? “My film is titled “Human Zoos: America’s Forgotten History of Scientific Racism.” The title “Human Zoos” refers to the dehumanizing practice in American history of putting indigenous peoples on public display, sometimes in cages.”
  3. Why did you choose to tell this particular story? “Several years ago, I read a book about an African named Ota Benga who was put on public display in the Monkey House of the Bronx Zoo in the early 1900s. I later learned that there was a widespread practice in both the United States and Europe of putting indigenous peoples on public display, and that in many cases this practice was carried out and promoted not by hucksters but by leading members of America’s scientific community. I am fascinated by the use and abuse of scientific ideas in public policy, and I was interested not only in telling the story of what happened but also probing why so many members of the scientific community supported the practice. As I began to work on the story, I found that it had connections with the American eugenics movement, which was an effort to breed better humans by controlling the direction of human evolution, and so the documentary also delves into that story. There are also connections between what happened in the past and today’s white supremacists. One of the points I hoped to make in this film is that we don’t get beyond the past by forgetting it. We need to face it in order to make sure the same mistakes don’t happen again.”
  4. Did you discover certain story elements during the production of this film that you never expected to find in the planning stages of this project? “I was able to find a lot of fascinating material in the digitized archives of old newspapers, material that hadn’t been used before and that provided some insights into why people did what they did.”
  5. What kind of audience reaction are you getting to this film? Discuss any Positives or Negatives that you feel comfortable talking about. “My film will be having its public premiere at this film festival! Up to now, it has only had a few private screenings, the largest of which was around 90 people. The reactions at the private screenings have been positive, but somber. I think some people were shocked at what they learned. After the violence in Charlottesville, VA this past summer, I added a new ending to the film because I found a pretty explicit connection between the issues I was covering with some things being debated right now. Only one audience has seen the new ending, and I think it made some of the viewers uncomfortable to how the scientific racism of the past was rearing its ugly head in a new way today.”
  6. You have completed a documentary film, which is a huge achievement. Do you have any advice for a future filmmaker that is about to start a documentary project? Advice that you wish you had been given before you started yours? “Especially if you are working on a limited budget (as I was), the more you can plan out in advance, the better. Also, learning to think visually is important when writing a script. My background is as a former college professor and as someone with training in journalism. So I have more experience with the written word than with visuals. When I started learning how to make documentaries, I had to stretch myself to write for a medium where what you show visually (and how you show it) is just as important (sometimes more important) than the words you use. I also learned that you need to be as concise as possible. Wordiness doesn’t work well in the visual medium.”
"Human Zoos" Director John West

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