#behindthescreen: interview with Alexandru Solomon about Tarzan’s Testicles
We continue our monthly Q&A series #behindthescreen with Alexandru Solomon and his new documentary project, ‘Tarzan’s Testicles’, which had its premiere on 6th October. A movie about yesterday’s experiments and today’s people at the Research Institute of Medical Primatology in Abkhazia, an autonomous state on the eastern coast of the Black Sea, an utopic place where humans are just as captive as human beings.
Firstly, please tell us how did you come up with the idea for this documentary film?
I was interested in the mythology of “eternal youth” and the medical experiments related to this subject. At some point I discovered a story about a Russian doctor who was living in France and was making monkey testicular transplants to old and rich patients. This story led me to another story of a Soviet doctor who was living in the USSR. At the beginning of 1920 he was working on a project regarding a hybrid between human and monkey. Afterwards, I found out that he inspired the development of a Primatology Institute in Caucasus (Abkhazia); the institute still exists today. I also found out that a World Congress on Primatology will take place in the summer of 2011, at an institute in Russia that was founded by a part of the Sukhumi team (Sukhumi is the current capital of Abkhazia) and I decided to participate. The team immigrated there during the Georgian-Abkhaz war. I participated in the congress, I met people, I visited the institute and the idea came from this story. But, the story became secondary because I was more interested in the current situation of the institute.
What was the ‘route’ of the film? From the idea, to getting funds, to the actual filming and to the final result – the film that we can see today in the cinemas?
Initially, I visited Abkhazia twice, on my own budget. After this, we managed to obtain some founds from the MEDIA Programme for developing projects and this is how we financed the next two years of visiting, writing and filming. Firstly, I was the one filming, then, in 2014, I teamed up with a sound engineer. I was trying to go to Abkhazia once or twice a year. After three years, I won the National Cinematography Centre contest and received their funding. Pretty soon after this, we received the financing from Le Centre National du Cinéma et de L’Image Animeé (National Cinematography Centre of France). The attempts to find TV funds did not succeed so the entire budget was based on Cinematographic public funds (Romanian, French and Eurimage). Starting with 2015 we went to Abkhazia with an extended shooting team. Approximately 80% of the scenes are shot in 2015 and 2016. Then, we worked a year on editing, sound design and post production.
What did you expect to find when you first visited the Abkhazia Institute and what surprised you the most?
I didn’t know much about it when I arrived there. I read a lot about the experiments made in the ’20, so the place itself and the fact that on one side, they continued the research on eternal youth, and on the other side, they worked on virology, vaccines and other practical applications, were an entire experience. I was interested in the relationship between the utopic aspect of the science of medicine and their whole concrete work on sending monkeys into space, for example. The scientists spent several years in finding a solution for the evacuation of excrements because after all, it is a major practical issue. They also spent years in trying to find a device that would make the monkeys stand still in the space shuttle, so they don’t hurt themselves. These were very small things that were part of a major utopic environment. Of course, I was also interested in their national and political situation. At some point I realized that there was a direct relationship between the institute, as a scientific micro-cosmos, and its surroundings – the city, the country itself. It was a post-ideological utopia.
I was surprised by all these things and the landscapes. The country has a sort of paradise feeling. It is a subtropical country – mountains, sea side, fertile lands and extremely exotic vegetation. But, at the same time, the infrastructure and the human settlements are underdeveloped. I found the contrast striking, being in a strong relationship with the main story.
So the shootings took place between 2011 and 2016. Was there a usual, funny or interesting situation about which you can tell us?
I have posted stories about the shooting on the blog. The institute is particularly organized; it has two sides. One is the zoo that is accessible to citizens and tourists and the other side is represented by the experiment buildings. In these buildings, the monkeys are kept in smaller cages. One day we were filming in one of them and a monkey grabbed our sun shade. Firstly, I was afraid that the camera lens was destroyed. But, he left only a paw print.
The relationship with the monkeys was very interesting all this time. Watching and interacting with them was fascinating. On one hand, you know that monkeys are wild animals in the purest way, so you cannot create a connection with them in the same way you do with a dog or a cat, for example. On the other hand, you can observe that their behaviour (also the adult monkeys) looks very much like the human infant behaviour. Sometimes you don’t know whether they play or they have a strategy to get various things from you. Usually, food.
What was the biggest challenge you encountered in the past years regarding the documentary?
The first challenge that I tried to overcome was the language. I took Russian classes for a year. But I did not develop my language skills too much because Russian is very difficult. It was enough in order to understand the conversations and to be able to ask questions. After that, the real challenge was trying to bring together the multiple narrative and thematic storylines of the film into something that would tie into a coherent whole.
Even though the documentary starts with the experiments made in the Institute, the real point of interest is focused on the people that are still present there. How difficult did you find staying objective while selecting and showing their stories?
The current experiments don’t compare to those made in the ’60 – ’70, the golden years of the Institute. I thought that it was more interesting to follow how the caretakers and the scientists interact with the monkeys and how their suffering is a mirror of the monkeys’ suffering. I wanted to show how life looked like in the institute, where both monkeys and humans coexist.
The voices of ‘Tarzan’s testicles’ don’t belong to a storyteller; those are the voices of the characters present in the film and the institute. At a certain point, though, the exterior voice of the person who asks the questions can be heard.
I tried to avoid this kind of intervention. It seemed to me rather important to let the characters share with us all the information they wanted. I did not need to be present in the film.
But you are present!
I am present in the dinner scene but just because this was the situation. I asked them to shoot a family reunion of one of the female doctors from the institute. But, because of the Caucasian hospitality, the invitation and the dinner became more important than the filming. They considered that setting the table, eating, drinking and talking was more important than filming, so I had to be part of the scene. Moreover, it seemed fair to me to accept the invitation and join them.
How hard was to get the approval to film in Abkhazia and in the Institute?
It wasn’t difficult at all. The institute’s approval has somehow existed since the first visit. In August 2011 I knew just that I was interested generally by the Institute and that the story of Ivanov will be part of the film. Besides its approval we did not need anything else. We never had problems during the shooting in Abkhazia. At some point, when the extended filming team came with more equipment, we requested permission from the Ahkbaz Ministry of Culture. We went there and met with the Deputy Minister who wasn’t very convinced that I am interested in making a movie about the Institute. He believed that I want to make a political film about Abkhazia and the frozen conflict with Georgia. He requested the script translated in Russian. I gave him the translated script after two days and he approved it. As a result, he gave us some journalist credentials but no one asked for them.
How difficult was it to make doctors, caretakers and scientists to feel comfortable with the camera, so you could be closer to reality?
We had a relationship that lasted several years, so at one point they forgot about me and the camera. It was interesting that by the end of the shooting period, their embarrassment has returned. They were again aware of the camera and some of them started to refuse to be filmed. Because of the long process of filming, I think they wondered why I don’t finish and I still come back. Maybe they found it strange and they thought I had other interests. I felt a kind of rejection and I realized that this is the end, I have to finish.
It is somehow ironic that most of the people in the movie are old men and women who work in this institute. When you started filming, you certainly had a plan and wanted to follow and talk to some people from the institute. When and how did the plan change over all these years of filming?
The generation contrast became rapidly a direction that had to be pursued. From my first visits, I found it shocking that there were either very old or very young people and there weren’t so many middle-aged people. This has a sociological explication, as well as the fact that there are far more women than men. Middle-aged persons or men either died in the war or were exiled, or they carry out more profitable activities than scientific research. The characters have not been established from the very beginning. In my first visit I met some people but after other visits and decisions, it seemed to me that it would be ideal to have an old and a young person, between whom there would be a relationship. I chose some characters that I wanted to follow. For example, doctor Lapin was more important in the beginning. After this, I realized that the formula of two-three main characters doesn’t work and that we needed more characters. Then, I decided that there would not be protagonists, but a sort of collection with many characters with equal roles.
The documentary contains some frames with projections on the walls of the institute’s hallways. What is the role of these interventions and what kind of images can we see?
I searched for a way to bring into present the Soviet, scientific and socialist world from the ’20 and ’30. I wanted it to resemble a ghostly presence which ‘haunts’ the present institute, which is a ruin; a mental projection of this once glorious reality full of excitement and enthusiasm and repression (but we can’t see this in the archives). We did a research in the film archives in Moscow and we found several documentaries with monkeys and doctors filmed in the ’20 and ’30 in the institute of Abkhazia. And then we came up with this solution: we rented a projector from the Suhumi Philharmonic and asked the director to let us shoot during the night in the institute. We spent two days selecting and projecting the images.
Was there something you really wished to do in this documentary and wasn’t achieved?
Yes, I think a lot of things. It is a normal process, you always set some things at the beginning, and you make a wish list that changes as you realize that you cannot do it all. For example, it was really difficult to convince people in the institute to film in their homes. Only two persons accepted. The caretaker Tania who was raising monkeys at home, accepted after two years and the medical scientist Alisa, who accepted to take us at her uncle’s house. But it was a formal setting, an Abkhaz feast, as it can be seen in the film. Another thing would be that I tried to follow the story of Cicico, a monkey raised by Tania, that appears in the film at two stages: two months old and one year old. In the last shooting session we found out that the monkey was given to a beach photographer so we went to the seaside, where we knew they would be. They ran away and hid the second they saw us with the camera. I haven’t been able to talk to them and they haven’t returned. This happened just at the ending of the filming period and I don’t even know if it would pass the editing session.
The film was present in national and foreign film festivals and starting with October 6th it was screened in the cinemas. What feedback did you receive during this time?
I think people understand the film very well and empathize with it. It isn’t an easy film and I knew from the very beginning that having no voiceovers or a structured editing will make the audience get involved and make some connections by themselves. But it seemed to me that it was the right structure for this kind of film and if I would have used a voiceover, I would not have allowed the viewer to discover the film using his own imagination and power of understanding. It is intense. I know that because of this and because of the contact with the rather brutal experiments, it happens that after the film, people do not feel the need to talk. Someone told me that I should do the Q&A sessions two days after the screenings. There are plenty of things to think about and this takes some time. Which I think is awesome. Still thinking about a film a while after you saw it… I think this is the greatest joy, right?