The Unseen: Birth and Death

As soon as I visited the monkey colony in Sukhum, I felt death is a constant presence. The monkey’s life cycle is shorter, so it happens – now and then – that one of the cages remains empty. In those six years I worked on the film, some great characters disappeared, like The Professor or Afrikanîch (The African). Afonea, who was raised by Tania at home and whom we filmed on several occasions between 2011 and 2014, died a year ago. These were baboons and macaques with a visible personality, so they received a nickname and were sort of famous among the caretakers and visitors, but there are so many others who are only known by a number. [Every monkey that lived and died in Sukhum is registered in the archives since August 1927]. Apart from natural death, there are the experiments and – although the personnel is very discreet about it – it is obvious that some of the monkeys are sacrificed during or after these tests. It’s a sad paradox that these experiments are partly dedicated to rejuvenation and prolonging life (I spoke about them here).

I’ve never seen a monkey die, but I always wanted to film one being born. I thought of all these tens of thousands of monkeys that were born at the Primate Institute, 13 or maybe 14 generations that saw the light of day in these cages. It occurred to me early on, when I was writing the project, and became an obsession. The problem is that monkeys usually deliver at night, when there are no humans around and they can be quiet. And then, you have to be there during the birth season (the seasons are different for macaques and baboons). It happened a few times that the caretakers showed us in the morning a baby born the previous night. But I wanted to witness the moment…

So, in spring 2016, we went there equipped with a hunting camera, that can record at night and is triggered by movement. Titi, our assistant camera, made a special plaque and fixed it on a cage where a pregnant macaque was expected to deliver. We were happy that the male-husband didn’t tear it apart. He sniffed it for a while and then forgot about the camera. Every morning we checked the cage and the footage. After two weeks we left. When we came back in August 2016, Olga Sergheevna – the veterinarian of the Institute – told us that the female had delivered a dead baby. It happens once in a while… And then, a year later – this August, I found out that Olga suddenly passed away. Olga was a very experienced researcher and was very fond of monkeys, she noticed everything on her morning rounds when she inspected the cages. She will be missed.

Trap Camera
Trap Camera fixed on a cage

One thought on “The Unseen: Birth and Death

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s