Remember Ivan, the gorilla who lived in the mall? About twenty years ago, America was introduced to his story. And through his story, we all became a lot more aware of the controversial issues surrounding animals in captivity.
The filmmaker who broke Ivan’s story with her award-winning documentary “The Urban Gorilla,” is Allison Argo, a Rhode Island-raised filmmaker with strong Bristol connections.
Allison was visting a Tacoma, Washington mall when she came across Ivan. He was living in a plexiglass enclosure, and he was miserable.
“This was at a time when we were getting a lot of reports from Dian Fossey, working in the field with gorillas, about how gentle they were,” Argo remembers.
So she did something about it.
“Getting Ivan’s story out really was a catalyst for action,” Argo says. “A gorilla relocation fund was created, and people became a lot more aware of the needs of gorillas, and all animals in captivity.”
Though Ivan could not be released back into the wild, he did live out his days, happily, in an Atlanta zoo with a proper habitat.
Argo never meant to be a documentary filmmaker specializing mainly (though not exclusively) in wildlife films. Raised in Providence and on Cape Cod (mother Betsy is a retired Roger Williams University professor and, until recently, a Bristol resident) Argo attended the Wheeler school. Her family was very involved with a summer stock theater on the Cape, and she grew up acting, did a few things on Broadway, then made her way out to Los Angeles. Other than a year spent on the cast of the soap “Search for Tomorrow,” the most important career-driving event for Argo was a new friendship, with a director of photography named Jim Holland. They created “The Urban Gorilla” together.
“I am always drawn back to films about wildlife, particularly captive wildlife,” Argo says. “I see them as voiceless, with no chance to defend themselves against us. These animals need champions — that’s where my passion lies.”Argo’s stories, at their core, are not about a species (though it may appear that way at first blush.) They are typically about an individual animal — one with which Argo has established a bond.
Argo’s most recent effort, “Parrot Confidential,” details the fate of parrots in captivity — a unique problem because unlike zoo animals, parrots are sold as pets.
But parrots are not pets; they have not been domesticated over the course of thousands of years. They are wild animals with unique behaviors and needs. What’s more, research has shown that, more often than not, the majority of parrot owners are unable to afford veterinary and other expensive costs associated with properly caring for the exotic birds.
Argo primarily works with the PBS “Nature” series these days, preferring the number of eyes that PBS attracts relative to other animal-focused networks. After all, what she is doing is a passion and a profession, but it’s also a form of activism. “I can make films, and get this information out to a lot of people,” Argo says. “It’s a lot more satisfying than signing a petition.
I believe people are inherently smart and good and want to do the right thing. My films allow people to have access to information about an important issue. And how can people do the right this if they don’t even know there is a problem?”
Looking back on what has already been an incredibly successful career is a narrow genre — with much more to come — Argo admits the “how” she got here isn’t immediately apparent. After all, she wasn’t raised by people who were involved in wildlife. But she was raised with storytellers — and visual ones at that. “I was weaned on Tennessee Williams,” she says. “He is one of the greatest storytellers of all time, and he has tremendous empathy. I must have absorbed some of that.”