Following one of Shadowplay’s Golden Rules — “ANYTHING WITH A MONKEY” — we ran recent documentary feature THE LOST COLONY, by Astrid Bussink. Ulterior motive: Astrid was a student at Edinburgh College of Art, where I teach, and is one of the most talented people to have moved about in my professional vicinity.
My first encounter with this slightly eccentric Dutchwoman was seeing a short she had made that got her onto the course. I forget the title, BUT:
A beauty queen, in full bathing costume and sash regalia, is driving a car and sobbing. The radio announces the build-up to the prize-giving at a beauty contest, and remarks that two of the contenders have not turned up. As the announcer burbles on, the weeping contender parks her car and drags a slain opponent from the boot.
Obviously we were in the presence of insanity/greatness.
It was kind of weird that I had so much to do with teaching Astrid, since I’m not a documentarist, but we had lots of fun chats anyway. She started by telling me that in her previous career as a photographer she had taken pictures of a notorious Amsterdam gangster, which had been published in a true crime mag, possibly leading to the guy getting whacked. I could see why she fancied a change of profession.
She then admitted to a fascination with female serial killers, which is always a slightly worrying thing for a man to hear, but this lead to her desire to make a movie about that town in Hungary where the women all killed their husbands. It seemed a tricky proposition, since it would involve travelling to the dead centre of a distant-ish land and trying to find living people who could talk knowledgeably about events that took place in 1929. Dauntless, Astrid made the trip and uncovered enough material for several different movies, honing it into an incredibly assured and beautiful piece, THE ANGELMAKERS, reviewed here, coincidentally, by regular Shadowplayer John Seal (whose column is well worth investigating, especially for those with access to US cable, but actually for everyone else too).
Although the same historical facts were the basis for the bizarro silent art-film HUKKLE, Astrid’s film gives us the straight poop on Nagyrev, where oppressed wives, long used to employing the local midwife to rid themselves of unwanted foetuses, took wholeheartedly to the less respectable practice of retroactive abortion, granting a slow death by arsenic poisoning to unproductive husbands disabled by the war, drunken and brutal husbands, and husbands whose presence was inconvenient for the pursuit of more attractive prospects. It’s a defining characteristic of Astrid’s work that extreme situations and behaviour are observed in a non-judgemental, oddly amused way, allowing the audience to make up its own mind, discover it is entirely wrong, reach a new conclusion, discover that’s wrong too, and so on.
This even applies to Astrid’s most Scottish project, RÜCKENLAGE / UPSIDE DOWN, which recreates the flight of Rudolph Hess to Scotland, in a doomed attempt to make peace between Britain and Nazi Germany. The plan was to let Hess’s own words seduce the audience and then whip the rug away when he reveals his enduring love of Hitler and pride in his “achievements”. Astrid asked me if I thought the scheme was working. “I think so. At first we sort of feel he must be one of those nice Nazis we’ve all heard so much about.”
So to THE LOST COLONY. Come with Astrid, your silent yet sagely observant guide, to Abkhazia, a place I’d never heard of and which sounds like one of those Ruritanian phantasies like Fredonia and Klopstokia, or my own contribution to the genre, Slabovia*, but is a genuine place on the map, a republic fighting for its independence and recognition.
The title of the film refers literally to a tribe of monkeys from a primate research centre, escaped into the Russian forests, and perhaps, just conceivably, still out there eking (and eek-eeking) a fragile living from the hostile landscape. But the “lost colony” could also be the troubled would-be nation of Abkhazia itself, or the film’s true subject, the primate centre.
Having survived a war (soldiers would stop by and abduct monkeys as mascots for their tanks), the centre is still experiencing hard times, with funding minimal and many of the staff and monkeys absconded to Moscow. The centre’s director, a quite literally hopeless optimist, wants to turn the centre into a tourist attraction, with all Russian wildlife roaming the grounds, and visitors riding around on the backs of bulls.
I remind you: this is a documentary. This shit is real.
During the early scenes, we grow to admire the fortitude of the staff who have kept this historically important site open through impossible times. Then, through their testimony and some frankly disturbing stock footage, we learn the terrible fates of many of the monkeys kept at the primate centre. For this is no animal sanctuary, but a laboratory that produced research leading to the eradication of some of the world’s deadliest diseases. What do we think now? The noble staff are struggling to save an institution that tortures animals in the name of science and for the benefit of mankind.
By the time we discover that, during Stalin’s reign, attempts were made at the centre to produce a strong but mentally inferior slave race by cross-breeding humans with apes (artificial insemination was the method, I assume you’ll be glad to hear. And it didn’t work, in case you’re wondering) it’s clear that we’re truly on the other side of the mirror.
And once again, I remind you. Shit. Real.
As always, Astrid’s symmetrical, Kubrickian longshots impose an emotional distance, yet the characters are observed with warmth as well as humour. It’s almost maternal.
And through it all, one staff member, a traumatised survivor of the war, keeps up a lone vigil for the lost colony, playing a cassette of monkey noises in an attempt to lure them back to the welcoming claws of civilisation. Although the monkey professors are convinced that the lost primates must have surely perished in the winter cold, as far as this man is concerned they are DEFINITELY still out there, somewhere in the great Abkhazian wilderness. After all, if they’re not out there, who is eating the monkey food he leaves out?
*Bit of a sore point. I named Slabovia, the last communist country in Europe, and created most of its population for Channel Four Education’s surprisingly unenlightening THE KNTV SHOW, but have no further involvement with the thing, which has now become a website/multimedia brand/whatever. I wouldn’t have minded being asked, since I think ideally things like that should actually be funny. But the EXCRUTIATING PAIN OF REJECTION is fading now and I wish the thing well.