The documentaries of Berlin and Beyond
Another love letter to an institution is Redemption Impossible, aka Unter Menschen (2012), a layered portrait of a group of "retired" lab chimps at Gut Aiderbichl, an Austrian animal sanctuary. After being infected with HIV and hepatitis, the chimps were isolated and experimented on by pharmaceutical company Immuno-AG, for several years, in a bid to discover an AIDS vaccine. When Immuno was taken over by Baxter in 2002, the vaccination trials ended, but the issue of where to send the infected, unsocialized lab chimps became an open controversy. After the chimps were shuffled around in various states of limbo, championed by their self-effacing caretaker Renate Foidl and her small staff of bright-eyed, ponytailed assistants, their care was taken on by GA in 2009, and their conditions increasingly improved upon.
Though the first half-hour of the film is a bit slow going — with real-time footage of the laborious, day-to-day care of the chimps, some of whom still live in isolation, too traumatized to be in the same room with their peers — the tale of the cloak-and-dagger intrigue surrounding their illegal importation into Europe adds a crime thriller dimension to the primates' unfortunate plight. Money and influence, of course, is the root of this evil, and the implicated players represent a broad spectrum of political figures, big pharma, game poachers, and even wildlife conservation organizations.
But ultimately it's the gradual rehabilitation of the chimps themselves that provides the documentary's real human interest, and watching them step into the sunlight for the first time in 30 years is a triumphal catharsis.
"To me this does not really 'make up for things'," Foidl explains emotionally as she watches the outdoor play space being built after years in the planning stages. "It's awful what was done to them. It can't be undone ... I don't think there can be any talk of 'redemption'." Perhaps not, but compassion, it would appear, can still command a central role. *
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429 Castro, SF
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