An Astral Monument: Andrei Ujică Interviewed by Courtney Stephens

On directing a film about the Mir space station and viewing the fall of the Soviet Union from above.

Wormwood

Andrei Ujică, still from Out of the Present, 1995. Courtesy of the artist.

Andrei Ujică’s Out of the Present (1995) captures the fall of the Soviet Union from the perspective of outer space through the saga of Russian cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev who was effectively stranded on the Mir space station from May 1991 to March 1992. The most formally exploratory film in Ujică’s trilogy that considers the end of communism, Out of the Present blends documentary and original footage shot on Mir with amateur footage of the August Putsch and other events in Moscow. The film is also an experiment with realms of relative time and predicts the virtuality we seem more and more to live within. Indeed, when Krikalev returned to Earth after his unexpected ten months in space, he returned to the future, carrying the passport of a state that no longer existed.

—Courtney Stephens

Courtney StephensIn Videograms of a Revolution (1992, with Harun Farocki) and The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (2010), you focus on how social processes are turned into history: the overthrow of a government or the transformation of an ordinary party member into a dictator. Out of the Present is different in that it is less concerned with the process of the event (the dissolution of the USSR) than in vantage point: how such an event appears in different temporalities.

Andrei UjicăYes, it’s multi-scale time: political time, historical time, geologic time, astral time. I was interested in this peculiar constellation—that for the first time a human is capable of viewing the end of a historical epoch on Earth from an Olympian perspective. Philosophically, I understood this moment to mean that the classical historical perspective, the Homeric one, had come to an end. 

The time inside the Mir space station was Moscow time in order to create a confluence between the cosmonauts and the Space Agency employees on the ground. For the cosmonauts, this was fictional time, as they were circling the entire earth every ninety-two minutes. But they kept a Monday-to-Friday work schedule, eight hours a day, and then weekends—the banality of life as an employee.

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Andrei Ujică, still from Out of the Present, 1995. Courtesy of the artist.

CSYou had access to Betacam footage shot on Mir during the crucial time period of 1991–92, but later got permission to send a 35mm camera back up to shoot additional footage. How did that happen?

AUThe story resembles pure fiction. When I arrived in Moscow I had two ideas in my head. One was to work with the archive. The other was completely crazy: to send a 35mm film camera to space and for the first time shoot in space for cinema rather than for the military or for science. When we asked the cost of sending up a camera, they gave us a very strange look and told us the regular price is three thousand dollars per gram, so a thirty-kilo camera would cost ninety million dollars, not to mention film. We understood very quickly why Hollywood hadn’t made movies in space. So that discussion was over.

Then my assistant director and main researcher for the project, Marina Nikiforova, had this idea. She said: “You know, there’ll be a woman, Yelena Kondakova, on the next flight.” This was very rare in the Soviet space program. She was only the third woman to travel to space. Marina said, “I’m quite sure Yelena will be very impressed if we go to her together with Vadim Yusov [the cinematographer for Andrei Tarkovsky’s first three films including, Solaris (1971)]. We must introduce her to Yusov and explain that he will be the director of photography and she will be his camerawoman, and because of the special relationship between Russian women and high art, she will be very motivated to participate.”

She had more power than you would imagine because she was the wife of the vice president of the Space Agency, Valery Ryumin. She studied mechanical engineering, specializing in the field of aircraft production at the prestigious Baumann Moscow State Technical University, and she dreamed of being a cosmonaut. “I want to go into space,” she said, and Ryumin agreed because he was completely in love with her. So Marina tells me, “If Yelena goes home and tells him she not only wants to go into space but also wants to take a camera, she will be granted this.” 

And this is exactly how things turned out. In the end we paid only fifty thousand German marks, which was exactly the cost of the container with the two rolls of film.

CS It’s a pretty good discount. Was Yelena in fact a film lover or was it more for personal glory?

AU For her own glory, for sure, but also because of this very Russian way of venerating great artists, of cultivating an almost familial relationship with them. In Russia people are still putting flowers on Alexander Pushkin’s grave after almost two hundred years. For Yelena to have this connection with Tarkovsky through his cinematographer was a great honor.

CS Can you talk about the film’s relationship to play? Along with the details of national character on display—the serving of tea and hors d’oeuvres in space, the sniffing of wormwood pre-flight—the cosmonauts engage in a lot of satire and vamping for the camera. It’s hard for me to transpose this onto my sense of American astronauts. 

AU I don’t know if it’s only because of cultural patterns. We might see the same with American astronauts in their private moments. There’s something physiological that happens in space after a prolonged time because of the weightlessness and changes in the hormonal activities of the body. The brain becomes much more irrigated, in a way. I spoke with the cosmonauts and a doctor from the space program, and the conclusion was that the libido in space is very low; but as this kind of sensuality disappears, it reappears in other ways that we can only imagine, that we don’t have here on Earth under gravity. They describe the intensity and pleasure of looking down on Earth through the window in terms of becoming addicted, of being high. That’s why all cosmonauts want to go back to space despite the difficult moments of take-off and re-entry and the first days in weightlessness, which are physically horrible. 

Another effect is a kind of return to childish innocence. They play like children, but like authentic children, not like stupid adults acting childishly on Earth. This was one of the most impressive discoveries for me working with this material, and I wanted to show it. That’s why it has such an important place in the movie. 

CS The film continually returns to the silent surface of the earth, where the political borders in play are invisible. There is the sense that the political sphere is a distraction from the more intrinsic human capacities, like gazing and longing. 

AU This is, from a political perspective, the main message of the movie. And the cosmonauts felt this too—that to go four hundred kilometers up in the sky and have a global view of Earth is to understand that the Enlightenment dream of humanity becoming master of nature and Earth is complete stupidity. Humans are only a tiny aspect of nature, and our politics are only a fragment of history. The entire scale of importance changes. That’s why Krikalev, aboard the Mir space station, when asked what has most impressed him about the changes taking place during his absence from Earth—where his country has gone from being the Soviet Union to being Russia—replies: “I don’t know what to say, but in the hour and a half while we’re talking I look through the window and see all four seasons passing and the change from night to day, and this is continuous. That’s what makes the biggest impression on us here.”

CS During the second crew change of Krikalev’s mission, one of the cosmonauts says before boarding the rocket: “I wish my daughter a good start in life.” My thoughts returned to this on Mir, perceiving the cosmonauts in this kind of mechanical womb—a state womb.

AU Yes, indeed. A thin aluminum membrane is all that protects them from the vacuum of space. And their re-entry is also very Freudian, how they’re being pulled out of the iron bubbles as if being rebirthed.

CS Especially the Soviet method where they were parachuted onto land instead of water, thumping down on this dusty landscape. We aren’t usually shown how wrecked they are directly after re-entry. We hear one cosmonaut asking for vodka.

AUThe Russian and American space programs in the ‘60s were of course military programs, but in addition to that they were propaganda and image projects. Their objective was to show the world which of the two superpowers could create the most powerful impression. 

There was an interesting difference in the way the two nations marketed space travel. The Americans always emphasized the existence of God, like in the famous Genesis reading from Apollo 8 or Buzz Aldrin’s singular celebration of Holy Communion on the lunar surface during the Apollo 11 mission. For the Soviet space program, the language always demonstrated the unity of the earth, because from a political perspective this was the Soviets’ main idea, that it was only a matter of time before the world revolution would arrive and everyone would become communist.

Yuri Gagarin made this kind of bad joke on the very first space flight on April 12, 1961. When he returned, he showed that he had his Soviet passport with him. When the journalists from Pravda asked why, he said, “Just in case I meet God, so I can show my ID.” But when Krikalev returned to Russia in 1992 the entire population had changed from Soviet to Russian passports. He was the last person with a Soviet ID. The country no longer existed.

CS There is the great Soviet birth-of-the-nation film tradition, to which Out of the Present serves as a possible epilogue. But the film also has an unstable genre that seems related to the Cold War itself, its slipperiness, the difficulty of monumentalizing its end.

AU Without a doubt, my films are influenced by the great school of early Soviet cinema, especially by Esfir Shub, who invented the found-footage film. In the end, from the formal point of view, all I’ve done is continue her work.

We placed overt and hidden references to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and many to Solaris. Some of them are well hidden. For example, we shot one scene on a parabolic plane during weightlessness training, and we see two paintings float past the cosmonauts. They’re the work of Mikhail Romadin, the painter of set decorations for Solaris. The first one was commissioned for Out of the Present; the second is one of his works for Solaris. Romadin is also seen during the Putsch in Moscow, making drawings of the barricades, the tanks in the streets, and so on. It’s another time contraction: someone making drawings from the battlefields like they did during the Napoleonic wars.

In my opinion, the Mir space station was the astral monument of the October Revolution. I was fascinated by the idea that a human could see it come to an end from this perspective. Within ten years, the Mir station became the Soviet Union’s cosmic ruin. She eventually fell into the ocean in the magically science-fiction year of 2001. She crashed into the South Pacific and disappeared. The same fate awaits the ISS space station still in orbit, which will probably crash in the same area in 2024. Our Olympian outposts are ephemeral and constantly have new inhabitants. 

CS The end of communism was experienced by many at the time as a kind of end of history. 

AU Post-historic? On the contrary. I’d reply here, paraphrasing the words of Napoleon Bonaparte: Nous avons fini le roman de la Révolution: il faut en recommencer lhistoire. (We have written the story of the Revolution. Now history must begin again.…)

Out of the Present will screen at Metrograph in New York City on December 14 followed by an in-person q&a with Andrei Ujică on occasion of the final night of Flaherty NYC’s Surface Knowledge series.

Courtney Stephens is a filmmaker and film programmer. Her forthcoming feature with Pacho Velez documents the afterlife of the Berlin Wall and the seventy-plus large fragments that have been installed variously as public monuments throughout America.

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