** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Michael Apted

Written by Anna Hamilton Phelan

With Sigourney Weaver, Bryan Brown, and John Omirah Miluwi.

In Hollywood there has always been more marketing than actual belief behind ethnic stereotyping. While the white men who ran the old studio system may have believed that Stepin Fetchit represented a plausible characterization of a black American or that Native Americans preferred to communicate through monosyllabic grunts, what really counted was that these portrayals pleased the paying customer. Movies never merely promulgate an image, they engage in a complex system of cultural exchange with their audiences.

A market-driven cinema like ours works as if it were an ingenious two-way fun-house mirror overseen by an anxious barker peering out at his customers and adjusting the distortions according to the reactions they provoke. Few images receive as much fine tuning as that of native Africans. Yet for all the adjustments, the mirror is still bent.

Gorillas in the Mist purports to tell the story of Dian Fossey, who in 1985, after nearly 20 years of studying gorillas, was murdered at her home base in the highlands of Rwanda. Fossey was anything but a detached scientific observer. Not only was she responsible for enlarging her scientific field, she single-handedly pulled gorilla clans back from the brink of extinction. She crusaded against natives who were killing the animals for trade, and, thouigh the case has never been solved, it is accepted that whoever bludgeoned her to death was a frustrated poacher.

Sometimes it is easier to “read” a bad movie than a good one, since an unsure filmmaker is more apt to be influenced by the ideas that buzz unfettered through the cultural ozone than one who has a clear point to make. Director Michael Apted’s mixed track record makes him seem like the kind of filmmaker who searches for intellectual engines to drag him through a drama. When given a strong story (Coal Miner’s Daughter, Firstborn, or the documentary 28 Up, in which the story was provided by the actual lives of the participants), Apted enlivens the preformed material. But left to his own devices (Continental Divide, Gorky Park, Agatha), he tends to lose focus and his pictures fall apart.

Gorillas is certainly abuzz with fashionable ideas. As far as the shapers of cultural icons are concerned, Fossey died at just the right moment; she became known as a fiercely independent woman. Feeling scant need for a husband, she dominated the men around her and was the undisputed boss of her operation, brooking little advice or interference. Where others shied away, she not only trod but led, and she took on armed and dangerous trespassers with the same steely self-assurance with which she assaulted local government officials and representatives of the international animal trade.

Beyond being an exemplary modern woman, Fosse was also a pioneer in ecological sensitivity, was among the first to popularize the belief that a animals had a right not just to life on a protected range, but to privacy and an existence wholly apart from humans, including bands of well-meaning shutterbugs and career-oriented graduate students.

Gorillas in the Mist does a good job of relating the high points of Fossey’s life: her first meeting with Louis Leakey, which led to her African posting; her first encounters with unfriendly governments; her growing independence; her slow but ineluctable transformation from dedicated researcher to eccentric hermit; and her fierce defense of her much-loved gorillas. Sigourney Weaver accomplishes the difficult feat of depicting an emphatic, hyperbolic woman with subtle, shaded hues that go a long way toward humanizing a dangerously “heroic” part. Some parts of the film–particularly the encounters between scientist and animals–are outstanding, providing a hushed, spine-tingling sense of expectation and reward. Screenwriter Anna Hamilton Phelan and Apted transform these scenes into rich, emotional reunions that leave no doubt as to the rightness of Fossey’s mission or to the appeal these gentle, intelligent creatures had for her.

The film also leaves little doubt as to the ignobility of those who would hunt the gorillas down. The hunts themselves, as enacted, are heart-wrenching slaughters. The poignancy of the animals’ plight is heightened by showing a mother trying to rescue the baby nestled in her, arms, or an old warrior making one last courageous stand in defense of his tribe. All accurate no doubt, but in case the point is missed, the hunters are shown to be a gleeful lot, laughing as they kill and dismember their victims. One scene, in which a gorilla picks up a hunter and throws him far into the air, killing him, is obviously meant to elicit a hurrah from the audience.

Such overstatement is the trademark of the insecure craftsman unsure of whether he is getting his point across. But it also follows a line of characterization that stretches back to Tarzan and a similarly antiquated kind of thinking. On one level Gorillas in the Mist makes the controversial but highly defensible point that the preservation of animal species is an international responsibility that should not just be left to local governments or single nations. But less openly it upholds the myth that Africans cannot govern themselves as nations or even take care of themselves properly as individuals.

Two types of black Africans populate the film: those who stand with Fossey and those who conspire against her. Those who are with her are mostly mute camp attendants–theatrical spear carriers in an almost literal sense–with the exception of her faithful aide, Sembagare (John Omirah Miluwi). Thanks to his association with Fossey, Sembagare rises in life from scampy village tour guide to responsible adjutant. The only other native African of independent status is a local official who is not allowed to retain his independence for long: first revealed as the tool of animal traders, he eventually converts to Fossey’s gospel of animal protection.

This pattern of white dominance extends even to the bad guys, a local tribe who subsist on the cash they earn from capturing animals, dead and alive. Dressed in rags, their religion dismissed as a collection of “superstitions,” they turn out to be in thrall to an evil European animal dealer in the zoo-supply business. In one scene–a re-creation of a notorious incident from Fossey’s life–one of these hunters is shown in petrified fright as he is subjected to a mock hanging under Fossey’s direction. Although Fossey is subsequently chastened by Sembagare for her cruelty, Apted’s camera placement–an objective point of view up near the victim with Fossey a dominant background figure–is designed to emphasize the notion that this fellow is getting no more than he deserves. Apted seems to be showing respect for the relationship between torturer and victim, equating it with that of teacher and pupil (as in “this fellow deserves a good lesson”). Another scene, in which Fossey dons a fright mask in order to terrify a child into betraying the whereabouts of his tribe, smacks of the same moral totalitarianism, though in more generally accepted, patronizing terms.

The treatment of Africans suggests that Gorillas in the Mist is not solely the story of a brave and resourceful scientist, but a drama of Western concerns played out against an ostensibly exotic but strangely familiar backdrop. Apted’s lovely vistas of the African highlands were captured with great effort but the film’s mind-set is firmly planted in Apted’s mid-Atlantic consciousness. The same voice that avers that black Africans are never so well off as when white men are making decisions for them, that ignores the bitter legacies of centuries of Arab and European colonization and exploitation as it intones cliches about the failure of postcolonial Africa, can be heard muttering in the undertones of Gorillas in the Mist, asserting that once again the white man must take up his burden.