By Will Espero

The Mpassa: A Second Chance chronicles the efforts of Liz Pearson and her team as they work with orphaned gorillas in Central Africa. This feature documentary by Director Joel Lawrence Holzman from the United States begins with a river ride to a secluded region in Gabon where a team of workers protect and engage with gorillas in the Mpassa Gorilla Project. 

The loss of a mother is traumatic in any species, and the conservation and rehabilitation of orphaned gorillas is the focus during a visit to the refuge. The daily routines, rituals, behaviors, and personalities are highlighted as viewers will see the relationships, bonds, and group dynamics these gorillas have created. Sixteen gorillas from one to eight years old interact and mingle in the jungle as their protectors and caregivers observe and monitor their actions. 

The film is a close, intimate look at the primates and the work necessary to create a safe government-recognized reserve or sanctuary for these precious endangered animals.

Director Joel Lawrence Holzman

Joel Holzman has a varied professional background in photography which spans over 45 years. From glamour and celebrity photography in Hollywood, to shooting wildlife videos in Africa and SE Asia. He owns and operates a photography studio in Vallejo, CA.

For five weeks during the summer of 2002 I observed, filmed, and lived amongst seventeen orphaned western lowland gorillas in the equatorial rainforests of Gabon in Central Africa. This was part of the research I was doing for a master’s degree in visual anthropology at San Francisco State University. During my years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Gabon from 1997 to 1999, I had heard about a gorilla sanctuary called Projet Protection Des Gorilles (PPG). Their main objective was to rescue young gorillas from captive situations throughout Gabon, and then reintroduce them back into the forest. This gorilla conservation project was started and privately funded in 1998 by the John Aspinall Foundation, who also runs the Howletts and Port Lympne Wild Animal Parks in Kent and Port Lympne, England. They have the most successful captive zoo breeding program for western lowland gorillas in the world. Their experience of reintroducing gorillas into the wild goes back to 1989, where it first was attempted by them in the Republic of Congo.

When the parents of these young gorillas are killed by poachers for the bushmeat trade, the infants are usually taken and sold in markets or local villages as pets. This poses a huge problem because baby gorillas need constant attention, a special diet, and become harder to handle as they grow older. Their only chance for survival is in zoos or to be cared for and then rerelease into the wild by gorilla conservation projects such as Projet Protection Des Gorilles.

My days were spent in the forest with this gorilla group who ranged in age between eleven months to seven years. There were ten females and seven males. This was an artificial family of forest gorillas who were brought together from different parts of Gabon. The group contained no kin members, silverbacks, or adult females. Each day I would take a short boat ride from the base camp dock up the Mpassa River to the riverine forest where the gorillas lived. I would be accompanied by two Gabonese workers, who would spend morning or afternoon four-hour shifts with the gorillas. They would tend to their needs, and walk the trails with them to different foraging areas. The gorillas, however, fended for themselves. They feed on a variety of about fifty different plant products naturally found there. At four o’clock each afternoon, the gorillas would receive a liquid milk supplement and their vitamins. Then they would be left alone for the evening, each building their nests high up in the tree canopy to sleep in.

Liz Pearson, an American, is the PPG project manager. She has been working with gorillas, as well as other primates, for the past ten years. She is also the surrogate mother to all of these orphan gorillas. She has hand raised most of the baby gorillas in the Mpassa group before they were capable enough to join the older gorillas in the forest. For example, the newest member of the group was Souba, an eleven month old female, who had just arrived two weeks before I started filming. Souba would spend each night with Liz Pearson at the base camp, then every morning she would accompany the Gabonese workers, joining the other gorillas in the forest sanctuary. In this way, she was able to interact with the older gorillas during the day learning how to survive as a forest gorilla.

The Mpassa PPG gorilla sanctuary is a very unique situation, because these free ranging and wild western lowland gorillas have been fully habituated to a human presence. It made it possible for me to observe and record their natural behaviors at a very close distance, without disturbing their normal daily activities. I spent a total of ninety observational hours with this group, which resulted in recording daily field notes, shooting hundreds of still pictures, and accumulating over twenty-three hours of videotape. What seemed essential to me was to try and present a true visual representation of what life was like not only for the gorillas, but also with the humans working with them on this project. This resulted in the present 73 minute documentary that I produced, The Mpassa: A Second Chance.

Joel Lawrence Holzman

The Mpassa: A Second Chance is an Official Selection at the 2022 edition of the Global Nonviolent Film Festival, and it can be watched from September 29 to October 10 on globalnonviolentfilmfestival.comD!