The collective mind-set in which I first saw the German-Danish artist Liesel Burisch’s 2020 short video “Gorilla Milk,” alone on a laptop screen, was one of strategic delusion. Online life under Covid’s early lockdowns was often a practice of suspended disbelief: Feel-good acts of togetherness like simultaneous remote streaming of movies were ways to distract from the pandemic’s violent divisions. Perhaps this is why a film about people heaping love on a gorilla appealed to me. It seemed soothing, even if its setting was a carceral institution like a zoo. “Gorilla Milk,” however, did not meet my need for comfort. It demanded I look directly at that which so often goes undescribed: the limits of love in confinement, including the cruelties we impose on women in the guise of “motherhood.”
Burisch, who uses they/them pronouns and is also a birth worker, made the film in collaboration with Csilla Frank, a vlogger and amateur primatologist. Frank has been a regular visitor to the Great Ape House exhibit at the Budapest Zoo and Botanical Garden, where she documents the abject life of a gorilla who also goes by the name Liesel. By splicing their own candid footage of Liesel’s life with Frank’s archived reels, Burisch gives form to a situation many women might find relatable. The film’s narrative subtitles tell us that life has changed for Liesel: She has suffered the seemingly natural ravages of age. “I want you to pay attention to the chest of Liesel,” the subtitles insist as the camera zooms in toward her wilting, milkless breasts. “Nobody is interested in saggy tit Liesel anymore,” they go on, and ask, “What is left of you when you are no longer neither fertile nor desirable?”
There is very little natural about Liesel’s situation. She was born in captivity, and it’s likely that she will die in captivity. Accordingly, the film is a collage of captivity’s workaday debasements. Inexplicably, we see Liesel scrounging for food, gathering other gorillas’ scraps in the crook of her arm. Seemingly depressed, she slumps in the corner of her enclosure, bearing her miserable existence with a triumphant lack of charm. Burisch intercuts these images with more disturbing ones. At one point, we see Liesel’s deflated chest as she lies open-mouthed on an operating table. After Liesel, already a mother of three, failed to give birth for several years, she was subjected to an operation meant to remove a suspected tumor on her ovaries. The surgery found no tumor and her ovaries were not removed, but the film is a record of the operation’s impact on her body. At her advanced age, Burisch shows us, Liesel is an object of indifference to all but Frank, who tries to comfort her with words of praise. In one scene, we see her coo a litany of flattering words through the glass separating Liesel and herself. “Beautiful Mama,” she says.
When I first watched Burisch’s film, I was contemplating motherhood’s inaccessibility. I had just become older than my mother had been when I was born, and I was nursing a melancholy at the differences between her generation’s circumstances and mine. As a millennial living through the crisis of Covid, I felt more caught than ever in a cycle of rent, debt, insecure pay and corrosive anxiety — hardly an ideal cradle for new life. Frank and Liesel’s example of interspecies intimacy seemed to hold some promise of comfort in maternal connection. Burisch’s camera comes so close to Liesel’s body that it seems as if we might whisper with Frank into her ear. Yet the spell is repeatedly broken by so many panes of glass: screen, lens, barrier.
In the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision that struck down Roe v. Wade, “Gorilla Milk” has helped me think through more political questions. What does it mean to “milk” a female for all she is worth, whether or not she agrees to give it? In the early 20th century, audiences might have thought Frank insane for her passionate attachment to Liesel. But if “Gorilla Milk” draws attention to any insanity, it is the belief that access to motherhood can redeem a social order whose abuses no amount of love can undo, especially when the burden of such love is placed on mothers themselves. Perhaps this is why watching “Gorilla Milk” can feel like prodding at a bruise: It is compulsive and satisfying but forestalls actual healing. Ours is an economic system that makes it relatively easy to suffer — if not die — from motherhood, especially if our conception of the family is one that must be sustained without appropriate resources. This is a time when being a mother too often means that a woman goes without what she and her children need to survive, let alone thrive. Sometimes it means encountering the violence of compulsory motherhood. In this situation, it is not just mothers who are endangered by motherhood: It is anyone whose living is not ensured by family or fortune.
I think a lot about Frank’s epithets for Liesel: “Wonderful Mama,” “Lovely Gorilla Liesel-Mama.” Though Frank means well, I wish that there were more comforting things for Liesel to be, less tainted by implicit violence. As Frank and Burisch press against the glass, no more can they truly be “seen” or properly felt by Liesel than I could press myself against a laptop screen and thereby be nurtured by the internet. And yet the demands I have made of this work, and all that it refuses to give, have revealed to me a very great deal about what love there is to be shared — if only we would bring down the barriers.
Amber Husain is a writer whose work has appeared in The Baffler, The Believer and other publications.