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Documentarian Christian Frei Welcomes "Space Tourists"

Having been familiar with documentary director Christian Frei's work from War Photographer, I wasn't sure what to expect with Space Tourists, his film about the post-Soviet effort to finance Russia's Space Program. By selling seats to very rich tourists of the extraterrestrial, the Russians have kept their shuttle flying while NASA is being forced to discontinue the American program.

Frei follows Iranian-American multimillionaire Anousheh Ansari the co-founder and former CEO of Telecom Technologies, who on September 18, 2006, became the fourth space tourist, and first woman space tourist — as she goes through ersatz cosmonaut training on her way to becoming the world’s first female space tourist; the footage she shoots on board the International Space Station (ISS) is some of the most intimate, breathtaking imagery we will ever see from outer space.

As Ansari launches into orbit, Kazakh villagers gather the precious scrap metal from the jettisoned rockets, while a Romanian space enthusiast works on his low-tech spacecraft. The 98-minute Space Tourists suggests that while the pomp and pageantry of the space program may have died out with the 20th century, the human mysteries have only deepened.

Born in 1959, in Schönenwerd, Swiss filmmaker Frei is mostly known for his films War Photographer (2001) and The Giant Buddhas (2005). Both deal with topics and themes more or less linked to war and intolerance.

Frei studied visual media in the Department of Journalism and Communication at the University of Fribourg. He made his first documentary, Die Stellvertreterin (The Representative) in 1981. Since 1984 he has worked as an independent filmmaker. He also works regularly with Switzerland's  German-language television network, Schweizer Fernsehen DRS. His previous film, War Photographer was nominated for the Oscar. Frei brought Space Tourists to the Sundance Film Festival, where it made it US Premiere in the World Documentary competition.

Having seen the film, I decided to talk with him about this unusual doc, not expecting him to win the directing award at Sundance this year. Thankfully, it did and so FilmFestivalTravler has this exclusive interview with the filmmaker behind Sundance's top documentary for 2010.

Q: When you look back at the things you’ve done, do you see a consistent thread?

CF: This is a hard question for me. When I choose subjects, and people sometimes do not believe me, but this is a very unconscious thing. I’m just at certain moments convinced this is my next film.

I have never stopped any project; I have never dropped out of any film project. It was always like, “I want to do that.”

Q: What was the thread between the Fidel Castro-related film Ricardo, Miriam y Fidel to War Photographer to the Buddhism film?

CF: I never go like, "I want to go in this direction, probably something about war." No, it’s always the other way around.

Being in Cuba I met this wonderful daughter of a Cuban revolutionary telling me an incredible story. First, she told me that she wants to leave with her family for Miami, but then she told me about her father being some important key of the success, so I knew this was a film.

And with War Photographer I was sitting in a plane, it was just pure coincidence, I was buying a Stern magazine, 12 pages of Afghanistan, black and white, done by James Nachtwey. It knocked me out; I really felt, wow this is incredible, this guy is really focusing on new aspects of war. Then I read the article and after reading it I was convinced, this is my next film.

And then I ended up learning about the Buddha from that. Probably one thing for sure, I don’t think I would ever do a film about [this breakfast cereal].

With Space Tourists, this is for sure, I wanted to do something a little bit lighter. Not totally, but not a comedy, but at least I think it’s something with which you can laugh a little bit. There are funny sides in it.

Q: It's ironic that you’re dealing with this futuristic technology in places that look like they're right out of Soviet realist movies or something that stepped out of the '50s. The
s reminded me of the photographic team that does images of industrialist sites —  Bernd and Hilla Becher. You have people that have $20 million and they're trusting post-Soviet technology.

CF: It's a paradox, which is of course interesting.

Q: The way you blocked out the movie, you have these distinct sections and elements. How did that evolve?

CF: The biggest problem was because I think the structure is not that complicated. For me, it's simple: You have this main arc, the beauty of this journey. And I feel it’s a beauty; you have this beautiful dream and I wanted of course to also show the absurdity, but it’s a beautiful journey.
Then you have the ground stories, and I needed kind of a guide there and I worked with Jonas Bendiksen because he was living in this region for seven years, he was discovering this crazy story of the space junk collectors, so he was an obvious guide for the ground story.

Then the tricky thing was to get this Romanian guy to fit into the film because that’s kind of a new element. But it’s like a third act sometimes; you can add something, it’s just a little bit tricky.

Q: We have the history of their secrecy, but how does that fit into today’s modern world when they’re trying to sell the tourism to finance their flights? That’s a key issue with your film: the irony of it all.

CF: Space has been propagandized. The space race was about propaganda. It was a very expensive tool. It was about exploration, too, I mean the oldest aspects are true, too, but for me it was interesting to discover that side.

I am a child of the Switzerland that is not neutral in this sense; we are totally between East and West. When I was 10, the Americans went to the moon and I was glued to the TV. One of the reasons why I wanted to make this project is what about the other side of the space race? What about Sputnik?

This whole shock in the Cold War, then the first woman in space; all the successes on the Communist and the Soviet side, what’s left? Because of course the instinct of a documentary filmmaker is to find the economy behind phenomenons.

If I were to do a film [about] the rollercoaster I would not just film the passengers and the adrenaline; I would film the system: the workers, the problems, the struggle, the competition.

So I tried to do the same here, but it's obviously, believe me, not easy. Space is so much linked to military and secrecy. I mean [the Kazakhstan city of] Baikonur [named Leninsk until late 1995] is full of all these rocket launch pads [the West once believed would] destroy the world. So obviously you cannot just go there and film around. Years ago you couldn't even dream of going there with a camera; it didn't exist, it [literally] wasn't on the map.

So I was very proud to have access but it was not easy. Also because it's so expensive, I think that's why, also, NASA controls the message. That's why all the space and rocket fuels look for me a little bit the same: very techno-oriented, rocket-oriented, success-oriented. Which is all true, it's a challenge, it’s very dangerous, but look at the film — it’s a very simple economy.

The banality of, for example, this third seat in the Soyuz [spacecraft]. It’s not in the film because it's a little bit too complicated to explain, but the third seat was always a wild card.

Q: Had it always been there?

CF: Oh, yeah, and they used it, for example, to take the Cuban guy up there. I wouldn't say these were space tourists, but you know what I mean. So to discover that finally, after decades of announcements of, "Just wait a few years and you can lift off with you family, and the dog, and the children, and instead of going to the beach you step into this wonderful, comfortable…."

You know, all these announcements, and now it’s a reality and it's such a banality. It’s just an economic fail, it's a fascinating history but it’s a history of futuristic inventions, not at all. It’s interesting, of course, and it’s a documentary subject all of a sudden, but it was not easy. At the beginning I thought I would never get there.

Q: How  did you find half the places where you shot?

CF: I'm so persistent.

Q: You have that one scene with this decaying rocket and there's this old, ancient, decaying apartment building. How did you find it?

CF: It's there, but nobody wants you to film it. For example, when I arrived in Baikonur, I arrived three weeks before liftoff. They were waiting for us at the airport and almost shouting, "What the hell are you doing? The media are supposed to get in three days before liftoff, what are you just doing here?"

Because we had all the necessary papers they couldn't send us back, and they were like, okay we are just here and it’s okay. And then I discovered ways to film, for example, all these houses and all these leftovers of the former successes, like the Buran program, where 40,000 people were forced to leave.

Q: Because they wanted the security right?

CF: Well, no, Buran stopped because it was just too expensive. Gorbachev just said at a certain moment, "This is too much." That’s how the Cold War was finally won; it was just getting too much for them [to afford monetarily]. At a certain moment when the Soviet Union collapsed, two Cosmonauts in the Mir [space station], with their little ukulele instruments, were afraid that there would never be another shuttle picking them up. It's really true; it's not in my film because it's another story, but it's really dramatic.

Q: Focused on this whole Soviet side of it, it's not the picture we all have of space travel and the space program. You're sort of showing the failure of a government-run program on one level.

CF: I don't know if it's a failure. There's so much success in it — it's still operating for Western companies in terms of bringing up satellites.

Q: What kind of computers did they have?

CF: That, they do have. The Soviets don't change anything if it's working, so that'’s why the Soyuz itself is still around. The whole computer system they use in the Soyuz is DOS, but it works.

Q: You’ve got rich people coming to the Soviet Union to fly in spaceships that are basically run on DOS or whatever, and they’re willing to spend $20 million to go out in space because the Americans won't let them. They're privatizing their military to make money. So you have these curious ironies — it's almost like a science-fiction story only it's really happening.

CF: Exactly. But sometimes reality is more absurd or more like outer space than outer space, it's true.

Q: Were you a science-fiction fan?

CF: A little bit but not too much.

Q: Did you notice this whole idea of the beauty in the industrial decay, like with the photos?

CF: Through the topic I hoped to get access to this world, which is a hidden world, it is a forgotten world almost. There are some films but there aren’t too many. This thing is as big as Switzerland, well Switzerland is small, but I mean it's big for a launch pad. You drive for hours sometimes to get to the next launch pad and there are 17 of these launch pads.

Q: It was in the Soviet Union; now it’s a whole other country, Kazahkstan.

CF: It is paid by the Russians. It's an enclave: They pay several billions a year to keep it and the Kazakh want the military out. So it's complicated for the Russians; it's full of history.

Q: It must have been fascinating to get into the mentality.

CF: It is, of course, the key in every documentary film: Everything you film is not only local, it's very concrete and it's dependent on what you anticipate. So you have to know the culture, not only the language. You must translate much more than the language to get access to a culture, to a system.

One of the advantages with the subsidy system we have in Europe is I can just be more patient. Like with space, yes, of course, it was difficult because after being allowed to research it and being out there with these guys and without the camera and looking up in the sky waiting for rockets to fall from the sky, they suddenly told us, like, three weeks before we wanted to shoot that, yes, we can do that, but they will stage the whole work of these guys for us with their military people and secret service members.

One aspect that is not that much in the film because of this problem is that of the rocket and the boosters; they are monitored by the Russian Federal Space Agency, because if there’s something only a little bit wrong with the trajectory, they want to know what problem it was.

And they take out one secret part which they don't want the Chinese to know about. So I was kind of depending on these guys, and they’re telling me, "This is the way you shoot it, we stage it. We want it to look how it should be." And then I told them, "But it's not how it was,” and they were like, "Yeah, we know. But we want it to be presented how it should be."

This is the Russian way of dealing with the media. You cannot argue and say, "It’s not reality," because they’ll say, "Yes, of course, it's not reality. But it should be that way." And then you're lost. This problem was huge, so I told them no, I [wouldn't] take this off. And I tricked them; I said I needed six months.

This [next thing] is really nice — this is a cultural [evolution] that [today] you can do things which four years ago were huge and the[even] CIA needed several hundred people [to accomplish]: With Google Earth, we discovered that exactly during this time they changed the mapping of this steppe, because before it was very challenging because there was nothing. But for some reason they changed it and with really nice resolution. So we printed out the whole region, which was finally a map of [great] size; my assistant needed his parents' huge living room for it. It was like 10 meters by 10 meters.

Then you could see this little sign of tracks, because there are no roads, there's nothing, it's flat. The drop-zone is around 40 to 10 kilometers &,dash; not that big. So we came from the south. Because the drop-zone during a launch itself is also in Russian territory, it gets Russian territory for these two days, so we stayed like four kilometers out of this zone.

Q: So you avoided the Russian zone.

CF: Exactly. They saw us.

Q: They couldn't stop you.

CF: Somehow we cooperated. I cannot tell you exactly how because there’s money involved.

Q: You should have been making a movie about how you made this movie.

CF: Yeah, it’s interesting. That's just how I work; I don't give up, never.

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