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The history of the world’s oldest primate research institute, in Abkhazia on the Black Sea, takes on a more metaphorical dimension in the provocatively but also rather misleadingly titled Tarzan’s Testicles (Ouale lui Tarzan), the latest documentary from Romanian director Alexandru Solomon (Cold Waves). At times creepy and uncomfortable in all the wrong ways and then gorgeously poetic or piercingly lucid in all the right ones, this highly unusual feature explores both a very specific location that has been used for medical testing on monkeys for decades and a much larger place: the country in which it is situated, Abkhazia, a self-proclaimed nation with less than 250,000 inhabitants that is recognized only by Russia and a handful of other states, and that neighboring Georgia, with which it fought a war in the early 1990s, claims remains an “autonomous region” of the country.
Though the parallels don’t all quite align and the film never fully comes together, this is nonetheless a fascinating and ambitious documentary that should further help consolidate Solomon’s reputation as one of world cinema’s most interesting nonfiction directors. The Transylvania International Film Festival in Romania first showed Tarzan’s Testicles, and the pic had its international bow in the documentary competition of the recent Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.
The Research Institute of Experimental Pathology and Therapy, as it is officially called, is located on the highest hill of Sukhumi, the capital of Abkhazia and a subtropical resort town in Soviet times. Founded in the 1920s to research primates — the apes that flew into space in Soviet spacecraft came from here — the institute is now a shadow of its former self, having gone from 6,000 animals at the height of the Soviet era to just 600 or so animals today, with many of the rusty cages empty and the monkeys that are still there often old and gaunt-looking, when not simply sick. The institute now has to rely mainly on tourists that treat it as a zoo where they can get their picture taken with a monkey for 100 rubles (less than $2), though the primates are still used for medical experiments as well, especially in the field of oncology.
The particular history of the institute — which was founded by endocrinologists in 1927, when testicle grafting was in vogue (hence the odd title) — is told through a combination of archive footage and Solomon and cinematographer Radu Gorgos’ presence at a quick guided tour of the three small museum rooms of the institute. In an elegant yet straightforward visual sleight-of-hand, some of the archive footage is actually projected on the walls of the rooms containing some of the caged animals. This creates an eerie dissonance between the flickering images of the past, when the future seemed boundless and bright, and the near-empty and dilapidated state of the establishment in the present. Further adding to the almost sci-fi like atmosphere of crazy scientists and their secret laboratories is the fact that the institute reportedly tried to create a simian-human hybrid in Soviet times, an experiment that was doomed to fail because of biological incompatibility.
Solomon lets the employees that work there — no one is introduced by name or captioned — talk about their day-to-day activities as they show the crew around the institute, occasionally diving into the place’s glorious history as well. One of the very few male scientists has worked there for 50 years, while a few of the female employees seem to have turned into the simian equivalents of cat ladies, taking care of a lot of the animals and even taking them home when necessary and promising to keep their favorites away from any new medical tests. Indeed, animals lovers will generally find the film a hard sit, but there’s one cute “awww” moment when a member of the staff does the dishes at home with a baby rhesus macaque attached to her leg while the family’s cat looks on with curiosity.
There are plentiful references to the “war,” which in this case refers to the struggle for independence right after Georgia, of which Abkhazia is technically part, became independent from the Soviet Union. The center somehow managed to remain open, despite having no electricity, running water or food for the monkeys. As the film progresses, there is a narrative dilation that occurs: The feature becomes less about just the institute and more and more about the country it is in, and the writer-director and editor Sophie Reiter try to organically suggest some of the parallels between the institute’s optimism of the Soviet era and its current, rundown state and the history of communism and of Abkhazia itself.
There are a lot of similarities, of course, as the Soviet form of communism was also doomed to fail and finally collapsed in the late 1980s, just like the institute did, and Abkhazia, not recognized by most countries in the world, is now in a state of political limbo. But the parallels don’t always completely line up or are fully comprehensible because the film isn’t a history lesson about either communism or recent Abkhaz history, so some background knowledge of the socio-political situation is required. Scenes such as the presence of some of the people working at the institute at a kind of nationalist memorial service are difficult to place without further context, especially because the direct connection to the institute is less obvious here.
What works better is the film’s last third, in which it becomes clear — shockingly, at least for Western audiences — that some of the scientific trainees at the institute don’t believe in the Theory of Evolution, mainly because of their religion. This unwittingly suggests something about how communism might have suppressed religion for political reasons but reaped the scientific benefits from it as opposed to today, when religion and nationalism have overthrown the yoke of communism but some of these beliefs might now dent the country’s scientific progress. As the documentary draws to a close, Solomon explores how all of these human constructs — religion, nationality, what separates man from beast, etc. — have contributed to where Abkhazia and the post-Soviet world finds itself today. Even if there are no easy answers, it is absolutely fascinating to watch.
Production companies: Hi Film Production, Seppia
Writer-director: Alexandru Solomon
Producer: Ada Solomon
Director of photography: Radu Gorgos
Editor: Sophie Reiter
Venue: Karlovy Vary International Film Festival
Sales: Hi Film Production
In Abkhaz, Russian
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