Locarno 2019: An Interview With ‘Space Dogs’ Directors Elsa Kresmer and Levin Peter

Laika, a stray dog, was the first living being to be sent into space and thus to a certain death.

According to a legend, she returned to Earth as a ghost and has roamed the streets of Moscow ever since. Following her trace, and filmed from a dog’s perspective, Space Dogs accompanies the adventures of her descendants: two street dogs living in today’s Moscow.

Their story is one of intimate fellowship but also relentless brutality, and is interwoven with unseen archive material from the Soviet cosmic era. A magical tale of voyagers scouting for unknown spaces.

Directors Elsa Kremser and Levin Peter join us on Close-up Culture to tell us more about the film ahead of its world premiere at the 2019 Locarno Film Festival.

Q: What was your understanding of Laika before ‘Space Dogs’ and why did you feel her legend needed to be explored in a film?

A: First of all we did not know much about Laika, except the collective knowledge that she was the first living being in space. Actually the more we found out about her story, the more obscure it got. There are many contradictions regarding what was and is written about her. So it was amazing to get to read the diaries of the scientist who worked with her back then, and we also had the chance to meet some time witnesses who knew her directly.

We were really surprised that she was born on the streets. So it was a Moscow street dog that was the first living being to orbit the Earth some millions of years after our planet’s creation. And it is this absurd moment in human history that pushed us to make this film, with all its mythology and fairy-tale like storytelling.

Q: In the press kit, you mention an interesting question: ‘What do dogs see in us as humans?’ I would like to know, what was your answer to that question before you started making this film and how has that answer changed over the process of making ‘Space Dogs’?

A: Maybe we thought of it in a quite classical way before we started to make the film. Things like: ‘Dogs are our best friends’ and also that they really need us humans for their survival.

Over the many months we spent with stray dogs in Moscow, we realised that they have a life truly of their own. They proved to us that they do not need us! There is also a very interesting development stray dogs are making in the urban landscapes. There are groups of dogs that really go back to wilderness, move far away from the humans, start to hunt for their food and sometimes even mate with wolfs. Those stray dogs are very fascinating to us, because the dog is a species that was created by us humans.

Stray dogs in big cities always have to find a balance between their wild descent and their closeness to humans. There they need to learn to read and understand the human inhabitants. For us, they are the true observers of Moscow, because they do not miss anything, and they are usually the first to perceive the changes of the city.

‘Space Dogs’

Q: What do you think was going through Laika’s mind when she was heading into space?

A: Laika was trained for one year in an institute in Moscow before she was sent into space. She had to pass the training for 20 days in an isolation box.

According to our research, she was chosen out of about 100 dogs because she has endured these tests with the most calmness of all those dogs. That’s why we believe that the initial changes in her perception of humans and her environment already happened during this training. When we think of their flight, we suspect that the difference may not have been as great to her as we humans imagine.

Yet, of course, the fact remains that in the last few hours she was at the mercy of the agony caused by the rising heat in the capsule. What was going through her mind in those moments? Actually we have no clue, but maybe the taste and smell of the streets of Moscow?

Q: What struck you most about the archival footage you went through for the film?

A: Definitely one of the first shots we have found, where you can see how a dog in space barks into the camera for minutes. And of course it was a special moment when we saw the archive material, which has never been published before. The operations, as well as the landing and investigations of two surviving dogs, who had returned to Earth after 22 days, touched us deeply.

Q: You spent six months with streets dogs in Moscow. How did you keep a distance from the dogs while also getting intimate enough to understand them and their journey? What was your approach to filming them?

A: We never wanted to keep a distance to the dogs. From the first day of shooting, our goal was to get as close as possible and gain their trust. It took months to learn how to move around the city and how it was technically possible for us to follow them. In the end, they accepted us as part of their pack.

Q: What was it like having dogs as the protagonists of your film and letting them lead the way? How did they shape the nature of this film?

A: In an essay on the film, the film critic Eugenio Renzi sums it up best: “These protagonists force the film to be as unpredictable as a wild animal and to move further on four legs: part documentary and part fiction, part past and part present.” And indeed, one of our biggest challenges during the making of the film, was to find a cinematic form, in which we can correspond to the dogs. To create a cinematic language with their way of living, their rhythms and their unpredictability. 

The dynamic is extremely high. After hours of sleeping, a sudden chase through the city can follow just within a glimpse of an eye. And, of course, the absence of language is replaced by the sounds of the city, growling, whimpering and barking.

Q: Do you hope this film changes people’s perspectives of dogs, their role in history and their place in the world?

A: We hope Space Dogs will motivate its audience to truly immerse themselves in the animal world for a moment. In particular, we are keen to counterpoint the current overrepresentation of romanticising Animal-Videos, which often seem to seek to prove that any foreign species is just existing for the sake of our projections.

‘Space Dogs’

Q: What does narrator Alexey Serebryakov add to this story?

A: The unique character of his sonorous, powerful voice. His sound is fragile, vulnerable and just as dirty as it is sensitive. His voice allows many interpretations. He could be a forgotten scientist who once trained the dogs and now speaks from his diaries. Or an omniscient cosmic voice that reminds us, misleads us and throws us back onto ourselves.

Q: What does it mean to you both for the film to screen at the Locarno Film Festival?

A: Locarno is, for us, the home of many films and directors we truly admire. It is for us the most radical among the leading film festivals worldwide. Under these conditions, we see the ideal framework for our film. Especially as Space Dogs moves on the border between documentary and scenic forms, we find it very delighting to get a stage there.

Q: I understand you are working on a first fiction feature, ‘The Green Parrot’. Can you reveal anything about that yet?

A: It goes back to the East. We will shoot our first fiction feature film in Minsk in Belarus. It will be a love movie, played by amateur actors. An autopsy assistant, who cuts open corpses at night and paints them on oil during the day, meets a girl who has tried to kill herself.

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