Monkey, Ostrich, and Grave

Monkey, Ostrich, and Grave
[Обезьяна, страус и могила]

Russia, Bulgaria, Belorussia, Israel, USA, 2017
Color, 96 minutes
In Russian with English subtitles
Director: Oleg Mavromatti
Screenplay: Oleg Mavromatti
Director of Photography: Viktor Vin4 Lebedev
Editors: Oleg Mavromatti, Boryana Rossa
Cast: Viktor Vin4 Lebedev, Anna Den, Egor Shimanko, Frol Burilichev
Producers: Marat Guelman, Boryana Rossa, Andrei Silvestrov
Production: Marat Guelman and “Liga Experimental’nogo Kino,” Supernova
Awards: Special Jury Prize at ArtDocFest 2017; Special Jury Prize at RUSDOCFILMFEST-3W 2018

Since the 1990s, Oleg Mavromatti has been known almost exclusively within art circles and by those interested in extremely provocative Russian contemporary art.  Though being justly labeled as a “Russian actionist,” Mavromatti was always interested in cinema.  In 1995, he founded the independent film union Supernova, under which he produced the infamous Green Elephant (one of the most cultish Russian films made after the collapse of the Soviet Union) in 1999 and directed Bastards (2000).  His best-known performance art piece, Do Not Believe Your Eyes (which resulted in a federal investigation and caused his consequent emigration from Russia), involved a real self-crucifixion and was intended to be part of the film Oil on Canvas.  In 2015, Mavromatti’s name reappeared in the conversations of Russian intellectuals when he released the documentary No Place for Fools, made out of YouTube videos of Sergei Astakhov, a “holy fool,” as the director presented him.  With his next film Monkey, Ostrich, and Grave, Mavromatti took another step that proves his status as an innovative contemporary filmmaker.

Mavromatti has three critical ideas that form the plot and style of Monkey, Ostrich, and Grave.  The first is the idea of political filmmaking.  Now living in New York City, Mavromatti remains interested in contemporary Russian politics.  He stays up-to-date on Russian political life, so it is not surprising that Monkey, Ostrich, and Grave is set in Lugansk, in western Ukraine, a city where military conflict is taking many lives, both civilian and military.  The main character Gennadii Gorin (Viktor Vin4 Lebedev) is a video blogger who lives in the middle of the ongoing war but does not pay much attention to anything happening around him.  He does not take part in the conflict and tries to live his own life, filling it with such fun activities as cooking compote from apple stubs, making foil caps, and setting a newspaper on fire while practicing pyrokinesis.

While Gorin does not want to take part in the war, it shapes his everyday life.  He walks among corpses but successfully ignores the panic that surrounds him.  Unlike such directors as Sergei Loznitsa, who is also invested in political filmmaking and who clearly shows his preference between Ukrainian nationalism and Russian imperialism, Mavromatti does not start by blaming Russia for what is happening.  He does not make general statements, providing instead a metaphor for war-torn Lugansk—a burning circus that appears in the first shot.  We hear a man’s voice discussing someone inside the building who is probably dying in the fire.  No visual image of that victim is shown—we see only the circus in a long shot taken from a drone.  A place that used to be a source of fun now turns into something that takes human lives, but the deaths remain off-screen.  In the next scene, for several minutes, Gorin describes his childhood and shares his memories of going to the circus and liking Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince.  The Lugansk blogger sees the world as a strange but funny place where miracles are possible.  And as the circus goes up in flames, so does Gorin’s life.

The bleakest point in the plot comes in the middle of the film.  Not only does Mavromatti show corpses of the people killed on the streets, he also introduces the story of Gorin’s trauma.  It starts with him showing pictures he drew.  In the style of a comic book made by a child, Gorin narrates his story of being an amateur photographer and observing a flying saucer in Lugansk.  He tries to take pictures of it but is abducted by two ugly aliens who torture him.  It can assume that the UFO represents a tank and the aliens are Russian militaries.  Gorin calls them Zheglov and Sharapov, like the main characters in the famous Soviet miniseries The Meeting Place Cannot Be Changed.  During a long speech, the main character gradually falls into painful hysterics, crying and yelling in an uncomfortably long take.  The scene lasts for 32 minutes and Lebedev’s performance becomes extremely intense by the end.  Gorin’s speech disintegrates, he yells that he could kill himself, cries for help, curses Zheglov and Sharapov, and eventually makes just unintelligible sounds that can be loosely described as loud mumbling and sobbing.  At this point, viewers familiar with recent Russian auteur cinema may assume that they are watching a contemporary specimen of “the black wave” or chernukha—dark and pessimistic films that assault their audiences without providing hope or satisfaction at the end.

Mavromatti, however, introduces his second critical idea—he takes a different step and grants Gorin the ability to avenge himself.  The final scenes of Monkey, Ostrich, and Grave make it a movie about “a superhero that never existed,” as the director described his intention in an interview.  Mavromatti awards his holy fool the power to burn “the fire of vengeance.”

In filming Monkey, Ostrich, and Grave, Mavromatti does not refuse his identity as an avant-garde artist.  He creates an innovative form for his militant political film.  Monkey, Ostrich, and Grave in a certain way is a sequel to No Place for Fools.  The real Sergei Astakhov has influenced the image of Gennadii Gorin. Both films are examples of post-cinema, about which Mavromatti published a manifesto in 2016 with his friends and colleagues Boryana Rossa, Viktor Vin4 Lebedev, PO98, and Anna Den.  The manifesto is a call to create stories out of YouTube videos, styles, and video bloggers.    This is an avant-garde film in which Mavromatti praises the new form that emerged in new media.  He sees vloggers as those who communicate their unmediated experience.  This is the third critical idea used in Monkey, Ostrich, and Grave.  Not surprisingly, Lebedev himself is also a blogger from Brest, Belarus whose interest in cinema led him to act and direct films independently and in collaboration with Mavromatti.  One of the producers of Monkey, Ostrich, and Grave, Marat Guelman, is primarily known as a devoted supporter of contemporary art.  All this seems very characteristic of Mavromatti’s contemporary project, where avant-garde art and politics interweave with the world of new media.

Denis Saltykov

Oleg Mavromatti was born in Volgograd, Russia.  He studied medicine but in the late 1980s started his career in the punk movement becoming an editor of the punk-journal No Future and a front-man of the punk bands Schnook and Manifesto Committee.  In the 1990s, Mavromatti established himself as one of the key figures of the Moscow Actionist art movement together with Aleksandr Brener and Anatolii Osmolovskii.  In 2000, Mavromatti shot a scene of his film Oil on Canvas where he was crucified.  The scene was called Do Not Believe Your Eyes and it led to a legal complaint from a local fundamentalist Orthodox community and the far-right party Russian National Unity. Mavromatti left Russia in 2000 and since then has been creating performances and films living in New York City and Sofia, Bulgaria.  In 2016, Mavromatti and his fellow artists and filmmakers published Post-Cinema Manifesto calling to create video content collaborating over the Internet.

Selected Filmography:
2019    Semiconductor
2017    Monkey, Ostrich, and Grave
2015    No Place for Fools
2000    Bastards

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