“It was a very difficult film,” Linfield reveals of the experience capturing the everyday happenings and habitat of chimpanzees on camera. “We had a period where chimpanzees got ill, where they caught a common cold from one of the [film crew] assistants.

“There was also a period when the Ivory Coast plunged into a civil war really. And we had to evacuate. At that time we thought we’d never get back in, and we certainly didn’t have enough [footage] for a movie at that point.”

But probably the darkest period for Linfield and the crew was the day that Isha died.

As the mother of the film’s youngest chimp Oscar, who is front and center in the film’s trailer and whose early life journey the entire documentary revolves around, Isha was still nursing her child and teaching him how to eat and live in the forest when she was injured during a raid by a rival chimpanzee gang.

“We thought we were about to lose our star,” explains Linfield, who knew Oscar wouldn’t survive very long without a mother figure after Isha's demise. The future wasn’t looking too bright for the film’s littlest star, and in the back of their minds filmmakers wondered if they’d have to call Disney and abruptly end the arduous shoot.

But the plucky, determined chimp wasn’t one to give up that quickly, as moviegoers observe. Oscar is quite the charmer, but when he tries making connection with the other females in search of a new mother in his family, he is continually rejected. And it’s not just a social issue; the chimp is losing weight and because he’s still learning and growing, he needs help in fending for himself and gathering food. If he doesn’t find someone to take him under a protective wing very soon, he won’t survive.

A Father Figure

What happens next is something that rarely happens in the wild and is said to have never before been captured on film. Oscar has one more chimpanzee left to approach in his family. He’s big. He’s unlikely. And he’s . . . Freddy.

“Oscar approached Freddy with this sort of sad attitude of ‘Nobody else is going to look after me, how about you?” Fothergill says. “And Freddy’s response was just the most incredible, amazing, unpredictable thing I have ever seen.”

Alpha males like Freddy are not known to take care of young chimpanzees. He’s reached the top, and he’s got a rival chimpanzee gang to protect his family against. But surprisingly, as the miraculous story plays out, Freddy shifts his primate priorities and decides to “adopt” Oscar and provide for him as Isha would have done.

That means the highest ranking male is now taking care of the lowest.

Linfield says he and the rest of the film crew were quite surprised with the rare turn of events. But they can’t take any credit for the amazing storyline that unfolds.

“I think that’s one of the things that’s interesting is that people are having difficulty getting their heads around why Freddy did it,” he shares. “[Freddy] actually had quite a bit to lose as the alpha male, because when you’re alpha in a chimpanzee group there’s a lot of bravado and maintaining face and making sure the rest of the group knows that you’re the strongest.”

Laying these hierarchical issues to the side, Freddy allows Oscar to climb on him and ride on his back (as Isha did). He also gives Oscar first pick of every nut he cracks open when foraging for food in the forest, just as a mother would have done. And he spends time carefully grooming Oscar in between meals; it’s an outward sign of bonding and personal investment.