Swiss documentary filmmaker Christian Frei's (The Giant Buddas, The War Photographer) third film follows the odd ghost of the Russian space program which became fully privatized in 1991. Originally sequestered in the Kazakhstan hinterland for national security purposes, the program has been cut to the bone and the surrounding townspeople have either shifted to a more agrarian lifestyle, left for bigger cities or created their own cottage industries around for-profit rocket launches. The once great emblem of strength and promise of Soviet power, has been drained of all romantic fervor and now serves as an abundantly ironic icon for how quickly life can change in an empire -- this bizarrely over-reaching, yet somehow self-sustaining capitalist apparatus has become the ultimate fetish object of wealthy and aspirational foreigners.
Our host through this excursion is Jonas Bendiksen a Norwegian photographer of Ukrainian descent whose intrigue with faded Soviet prestige has led to hundreds of beautiful images of the sadly growing, universal experience of small town thrift and ingenuity that springs up in the wake of industrial collapse.Some of the Kazakh people see the shuttle launches as good business and enjoy the simple riches it bestows on their lives. Scrap metal collectors spend weeks chasing discarded rocket chunks. They set up camp waiting for the pieces to cool, dismantle it, then sell the bits to Chinese manufacturers (take a moment to imagine the geopolitical ramifications the next time you take home leftovers in a tinfoil swan). Farmers forge new sheds and tools out of space debris. And a once heavily guarded military compound has been retro-fitted into an ad hoc Space Disneyland with hourly tours are given and teams of scientists in the basement work out new cost-cutting measures.
Though the wonder and glory of space isn't dead to everyone. The two Americans Frei documents making the trek are full of platitudes about working towards dreams, and dreaming of the stars and stars in your work or whatever. Count me in the crowd of people who when listening to a software billionaire talk about the limitless potential of a borderless world can only hear the ticking off of an imaginary list of all the things that could have been accomplished with the $20M spent on their 6-day space vacation.
Luckily, Frei appears to share at least a little of this animosity. And people who enjoy reality tv shows of the "Celebrities Do the Darndest Things" variety, will be delighted to learn that when in space, billionaires have to do chores. Lots and lots of chores. You had no idea there were so many things to vacuum on a spacecraft. And seeing the delight Anousheh Ansari, the first female space tourist to visit the International Space Station, experiences in rolling a ping pong ball around a metal tube in zero-gravity while her voiceover describes that she would've happily sacrificed her life for this experience, one might deduce that outerspace is probably some kind of psychological roadblock for a certain type of person who will never feel accomplished.
The third act follows the race to create a rocket alternative to space launch. Ansari's investment firm (along with many others) is fronting a $100M reward to the first team to successfully launch a new, tourism-focused method of space travel. A plucky Romanian aerospace engineer seems to be well on his way to blowing up many hot air balloons in pursuit of his own starry-themed dream.
Frei shot Space Tourists on 16mm film giving his images a gritty beauty that when paired with Jan Garbarek's synth-heavy score is oddly reminiscent of William Friedkin's morally dour Sorcerer. A scene where space scrap metal collectors bounce along the off-road backcountry while electric bees seem to buzz around their head in particular. But as an inspiration point, it's merely an aesthetic similarity. As skeptical as Frei may be about the benefits of space travel, Space Tourists accomplishes what the Soviet empire itself could not. Equalizing the ambitions of the millionaire who dreams of stars and the villagers whose contributions to the outlying details and bureaucracies make those dreams go, the film gives ingenuity and hard work of all stripes its due respect.
Space Tourists screened at Hot Docs International Film Festival and is currently playing at various festivals including SilverDocs and the Los Angeles Film Festival.