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[whitespace] Green Enos and Ham

'Story of the Space Chimps' reveals what two unsung American heroes went through for the glory of the U.S. space program

By Sarah Phelan

So, chimps are more closely related to people than gorillas and should be included in the human branch family tree, eh? Such news will come as no surprise to David Cassidy (no, not that David Cassidy) and Kristin Davy, the producers/directors of One Small Step: The Story of the Space Chimps, a Santa Cruz Film Festival entry which reconstructs the huge and hitherto unsung role these hairy heroes played in making manned space travel a reality for the United States.

Using original photos and footage of the chimps and JFK--which proves that presidents were monkeying around with the facts long before Bush Jr. hit the scene--One Small Step focuses on Ham, who rocketed into outer space in 1961, and Enos, who followed 10 months later.

But while these chimps' strong personalities--Ham is the ham, Enos the grouch--will soon have you reaching for the Kleenex, the film is a lot more than one long blubberfest. It also leaves you flabbergasted at the terrible things we've done to these animals, and itching to see someone finally stand up for them.

In One Small Step, that someone turns out to be the ultratough Dr. Carol Noon, who sued the U.S. Air Force when they "retired" the surviving astrochimps to a biomedical research facility in the 1990s--more than four decades after Ham and Enos began their space training.

Much like a chimp playing with a banana, this heartfelt documentary turns all the usual space rhetoric neatly on its head, beginning with the title, which plays with the flubbed words of astronaut Neil Armstrong, who many people still don't realize was supposed to say, "That's one small step for a man; one giant leap for mankind," during the epoch-making Apollo 11 mission.

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Santa Cruz Film Festival 2003

Culture Shock: Raw, clever documentary 'Culture Jam' champions the 'joyful revolution' of ad busting, sign-jacking and all-around culture hacking as part of the Santa Cruz Film Festival Friday program.

Roller Ballsy: Roller queen Ann Calvello is still hell on wheels in 'Demon of the Derby.'

You Gave Me Shiva: A hyperkinetic NYC tour guide and a frightening vérité look at the terrorist attacks make for a fascinating SCFF program about Sept. 11.

Green Enos and Ham: 'Story of the Space Chimps' reveals what two unsung American heroes went through for the glory of the U.S. space program.

Let Us Prey: Cheri Lovedog's 'Prey for Rock & Roll' gets a homecoming on the SCFF's opening night.

Bitter Fruit: 'Coloring the Silver Screen' program focuses on the history of African Americans in cinema and the strange-but-true history of Billie Holiday's haunting rendition of 'Strange Fruit.'

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The film's monkey business continues with excerpts of JFK's definitive space speech--"If this capsule history of our progress teaches us anything, it is that man, in his quest for knowledge and progress, is determined and cannot be deterred"-- cleverly matched with the small steps that chimps, not people, were making at the time.

Cassidy and Davy say that they set out to give chimps their proper place in space history, and reveal the many mistakes that were made along the way. And though they clearly have succeeded on the silver screen, inconsistencies remain in the real world. For instance, when Cassidy visited the Smithsonian, he discovered that Ham's name was on the space timeline, but Enos' wasn't, even though in many ways Enos' role was more important. And it was only after he visited Ham's grave that he realized that Ham's skeleton was still at the Smithsonian.

"It was Dr. Carol Noon who said Ham deserves a proper burial. And she was right, which just goes to show that even my thinking was a little behind, until she pointed that out," Cassidy says.

And while he and Davy say that in making the film they came to understand how all of this happened 40 years ago, when no one knew much about chimps (Jane Goodall's research was only just coming out), they both found it inexcusable that the Air Force could remain blind to the chimps' suffering, when it had the opportunity to repay them by giving them a proper retirement 40 years later.

And to prove there is still such a thing as a happy ending, Cassidy says that since the film was wrapped, Noon has gained custody of all the surviving chimps.

To tickle your funny-peculiar bone even further, the Santa Cruz Film Fest has paired One Small Step with Grumboon, Aaron Crozier's whimsical silent short that follows the trials and tribulations of Boon, a caveman with a Beatlesque haircut who tries to win the respect of his tribe through brains rather than brawn. Trouble is, Boon is so ahead of his time that even he struggles to find applications for his latest and possibly best invention.

The result will leave you gasping.


One Small Step: The Story of the Space Chimps and Grumboon play Tuesday, June 3, at the Riverfront Twin.

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From the May 28-June 4, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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