HotDocs review: Space Tourists [2009, Christian Frei]

Toronto -Three people are sitting in the claustrophobic cockpit of the docking module at the front of a Soyuz rocket. One of them lack the decades of training, military flight background, and scientific expertise typical of astronauts. Yet all shared the aspirations of being in space. As the countdown nears 60 seconds, a hushed prayer:

Here I am, at the center of the world.
Behind me, myriads of protozoa,
before me, myriads of stars.
I lie between them in my entirety.
Two shores taming the sea,
a bridge that joins two worlds.
And, dear God, a little butterfly,
a shred of golden silk,
laughs at me like a child.

I don’t know if Frei added that voice for dramatic effect, or do the Russian cosmonaut commanders always mutter this Tarkovsky poem before launch (I know for certain that if he did not use it multiple times in the film its romantic effect would have doubled). But Space Tourists is both a documentary and a dramatic piece of cinema. Its 3 parts joins together like the 3-stages of the Soyuz, propelling the audience toward a better understanding of the entire landscape surrounding the glacially expanding space tourism in Russia/Kazakhstan. Stage 1 is Jonas Bendiksen, who documented the former Soviet state through his photography. Pictures of desolate Soviet landscapes, abandoned space program headquarters, grimy and worn inhabitants are haunting, but it tells about past more than present. A band of Kazakh junk raiders contrasts with paying space tourists Anousheh Ansari and Charles Simonyi to show us the norm. The modern space program contributes to both rich and poor, in some poetic sense. A donation of 20 million dollars gets you sufficient training to withstand the launch, feeding the ailing Russian space program, while farmers and goat herders gets to salvage scrap metals and parts from the rocket stages. Where’s the future, then? Frei’s got that covered, too, with some footage from the X-prize challenges, and projects from the under-privileged ARCA (Romanian Cosmonautics and Aeronautics Association).

The film is beautiful to watch. There are, of course, rockets. And people flying down the tubes in Mir, swallowing water droplets, and demonstrating how to piss/poo. But the more interesting parts are the junk raiders cooking and eating from a piece of rocket gear that’s very very charred, and farm villages with a second stage rockets poking out of the field where livestocks roam. Obviously with the footage on Mir, Frei has no control over the camera. But within Star City, Baikonur Cosmodrome, and on the plains of Kazakhstan, the shots contributed much to the feeling of the film – a slight foreboding. There is a disjointed feeling, too. Although I put the film in that “3-stage” metaphor, it’s not really presented clearly in that fashion. The X-prize and Bendiksen parts seem especially alien to the rest of the film – almost like they were tacked on to sandwich the space flights. Seeing how much promise the space program had, and how it’s mostly abandoned, leaves quite a taste in the mouth. We could have all been up there, I guess, had we not been distracted by other “priorities”. Now, according to ARCA, we’ll all be dangling from a balloon for couple of hours before we’re shot up to space. Frankly, leaving my home planet on a trajectory dictated by the weather in a hand-crafted carbon-fiber diving bell is something I need to be paid to do.

Posted on by Gary in Everything, Hot Docs, Reviews