Documentary filmmaker \\ Giving a voice to the voiceless, one film at a time
Growing up in Orleans, Allison Argo didn’t have a classic Cape Cod childhood. Her parents rented the auditorium space at the Orleans Town Hall and transformed it into a summer stock theater. The town offices were moved after a few years and Argo’s parents bought the building for a pittance. Argo grew up watching from the balcony and learning from those she saw on stage. “I think I just absorbed the storytelling and innate sense of drama and pathos and heroic struggles and unsung heroes, and the struggle for human decency. All of those seeds were planted while I was watching from the balcony,” she says. She fell in love with the works of Tennessee Williams and made her stage debut around 4 years old. “I didn’t grow up doing the normal things families on Cape Cod do, like learning to sail or going to the beach. I grew up building sets, learning lines and performing at night,” Argo says of her childhood and credits her unusual upbringing for setting her on the path she would walk. Naturally, New York, and Broadway, was the next step, where she slept on her sister’s couch and starred in a Tennessee Williams play on the Great White Way.
Eventually Argo made her way to California, where she worked on TV films. It was while researching gorillas that Argo learned about Ivan, a Western Lowland gorilla living as a tourist attraction in a shopping mall in Tacoma, Washington. Ivan had been taken from the wild as a baby and lived with his owners for a few years before he became too large for them to handle. He was then moved to the B&I Shopping Center where he lived for 27 years in a 40’x40’ concrete enclosure. His only company was his occasional caretakers and the visitors pressing their hands up against his glass. It was that meeting that changed the course of Argo’s life, when she vowed to bring attention to Ivan’s heartbreaking condition.
With her then husband, a cinematographer, and friend, a sound mixer, Argo set about making sure Ivan and other gorillas’ stories were told in “The Urban Gorilla.” “I set out to make this documentary, not knowing the first thing about producing or directing. But as it turned out, that time in the Orleans Arena Theater, up in the balcony, really taught me so much in a subtle, deep way,” Argo explains. “I just had to learn how to do everything in the saddle. One of the wonderful by-products of learning this way and not going to film school or not coming up through the ranks was that I had no idea how it was supposed to be done, so I did it in a different way.” The film was put together and Argo sent it around in the hopes someone else would want to help Ivan. And National Geographic did. “The Urban Gorilla” made its way to the Emmys and Ivan made his way to Zoo Atlanta, where he was able to live out the rest of his life in a state of the art, naturalistic enclosure with other gorillas. It was then that National Geographic turned to Argo and asked, “Do you have any other ideas?”
Since “The Urban Gorilla,” Argo has written, directed and produced 19 films calling attention to the plight of animals large and small across the world. “It’s the injustice that keeps me making these films. I can’t bear the injustice towards other animals,” says Argo. From gorillas and elephants to frogs, horseshoe crabs and parrots, no creature is unworthy of attention. “To me, it’s just so crystal clear that every nonhuman animal has, just as we do, history, likes, dislikes, has relationships. If you look at it through that lens, you see how precious they are and how much they deserve. Through my films, I try to individualize, to present these animals as the singular beings they are because I think when we see them that way, we develop a respect for them.”
The experience of documentary filmmaking brought Argo back to her days at the summer stock theater. “It’s this small group of people who all have to get the job done together. When you’re on location, you’re living in a hotel, or guest house, and you’re all basically living together. You’re pulling together to accomplish the same thing,” she explains, “and professionally, working on movies of the week, it really wasn’t the same experience. I would be in my motorhome or the makeup chair, just waiting to be called to set. I didn’t feel I was organically a part of this creative process. Even when I had good roles, it wasn’t fulfilling in the way I needed it to be.” The camaraderie, the ability to teach, and the chance to make a difference called to Argo in a way that her previous experience didn’t.
Argo is currently working on a film titled “The Last Pig,” about a former pig farmer who decides he can no longer bring his pigs to slaughter. A potent lesson in compassion, the film is available for those who wish to host a screening and Argo is working on cuts of the film to show in middle schools, high schools and colleges. “I’m constantly looking for issues that need to be revealed and stories that need to be told. I feel like it’s a life’s responsibility that I’ve taken on, to speak up for those who can’t speak up for themselves.”
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