The wonderful thing about documentary film is that you get to see the characters within their physical and social landscape; to see how they interact with their surroundings. Sometimes it is a place that they know extremely well, like the back of their hand. Other times it is a new and unfamiliar location; the classic fish-out-of-water story. A good film will do the same for the viewer, showing the new and unknown as well as showing well-known people and places from an unfamiliar angle.
Christian Frei’s new film, SPACE TOURISTS (World Cinema Directing award at Sundance 2010), is a very good documentary film. It covers the recent development of commercial space travel as well as the slowly decaying remains of the Cold War military monopoly on space. In the film, we meet Anousheh Ansari, founder of the X-Prize, a $10 million prize for the first non-governmental organization to build a reusable, manned spacecraft. Anousheh paid the Russians $20 million to let her travel to the International Space Station on their rocket. We also meet the Kazakh sheepherders who wait expectantly for the booster engines to come crashing down to earth. When it lands, which occasionally is on somebody’s house, the Kazakhs harvest the metal and sell it for scrap.
Other (local) reviewers have complained that the only appealing part of the movie is Anousheh Ansari’s storyline, following her preparatory training and adventures on the space station. It is, predominantly, the usual stuff: tests of physical fitness on earth and floating bubbles of water in space; however, Frei manages to get some exclusive shots of her in the final moments before launch. While the footage of Ansari, and her pictures of earth, are fascinating, they have no punch without the complimentary stories in the film. Taken as a whole, the film explores the context in which space travel occurs. The other segments establish the conditions that allow Ansari to be a “space tourist,” and fulfill her dream of going into orbit.
Along with the Kazakh scavengers, we meet a Norwegian photojournalist whose pictures of the Soviet Union’s crumbling space program infrastructure weave throughout the film. The dilapidated and mostly empty buildings in the former Soviet “space city” of Baikonur (located in Kazakhstan but owned by the Russians) is where cosmonauts are trained and rockets are launched. Seeing the run-down condition of the town is all you need to realize why the Russians are so willing to sell the third seat in the Soyuz capsule.
Finally, we meet Dumitru Popescu, a Romanian engineer who has competed for several X-Prizes himself. Where Ansari uses her millions to buy her dream, Dumitru builds the test ships that one day, hopefully, will allow him to achieve his dream of going into space. He says, “I could do this in a much easier way… to make business, to make money! And I could buy a ticket to go into space… but it’s not fun!” As Anousheh says, “How do you put a price on a dream?”
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SPACE TOURISTS is screening Tue, June 22, 5:00pm, and Thu, June 24, 1:30pm. See the trailer and read an interview with the director about the difficulties of filming the Kazakh sheepherders.
— Matthew Radcliff is the organizer of the WIFV Documentary Roundtable and a member of the Silverdocs Screening Committee. He has no desire to travel into space, although he wants to try one of those centrifuges used to train astronauts to withstand the g-force of liftoff.