Issue 32 (2011)

Vladimir Kozlov: Gagarinland (France, 2010)

reviewed by Jeremy Hicks © 2011

gagarinThe difficulty of approaching this April’s 50th anniversary of Iurii Gagarin’s pioneering space-flight is that of treating any such well-known subject: how can you say something new about it? Films tackling the theme could use the widely-seen newsreel pictures of Gagarin’s smile or his arrival in Moscow with a loose shoelace flapping along the red carpet at Vnukovo airport. But the fear of producing a bland rehashing of the known might push a filmmaker to search for new, unseen footage, or attempt to use the familiar in an innovative way. They might alternatively attempt to tell an untold story about the first manned spaceflight, concentrating, for example on the chief designer Sergei Korolev (as does the 2005 BBC docudrama, Space Race, and Robin McKie’s recent article in The Observer). By examining the culture of Gagarin memorialization in the cosmonaut’s home town near Smolensk which now bears the name of its most famous son, French-based Russian director Vladimir Kozlov has found a novel take on the subject. The result is a charming, refreshing film: that boldly, and plausibly, proclaims itself the world’s first comic, cosmic film.

The comic dimension is achieved by following a cast of mildly eccentric local people who colorfully and enthusiastically commemorate the world’s first man in space. The most engaging of these are Mikhail Chekusov, a retired officer of the militia who is also a poet given to strident verse eulogies addressed to almost anything connected with Gagarin. A particular highpoint is his improvised poetic apostrophe to a canteen allegedly once frequented by Gagarin; similarly a teacher and amateur entertainer who compulsively collects Gagarin memorabilia for a permanent exhibition at the agricultural college where he works. There is an amusing but also winningly home-made spontaneity about this grassroots archivist. Although less sincere, there is also much good comic value in the sheer naked, or rather scantily-clad opportunism of the local ladies’ underwear manufacturer who is bringing out a commemorative, Gagarin-themed range of lingerie with names like “Vostok” and “Eternal Soiuz.”

gagarinAlongside these amateur enthusiasts, Kozlov’s film also looks at a great number of more official guardians of the Gagarin cult, such as his niece, Tamara Filatova, who is now the curator of a museum devoted to the first cosmonaut, where she promises to share her personal memories of her uncle, who was, she claims, a closer confidant than her own mother. We also meet the governor of the region, who is planning the absurdly ambitious, multi-billion dollar theme park from which the film takes its title. This gallery of portraits is edited together smoothly, and eschews the obvious stylistic blandishments of popular documentaries such as the voice-over or use of a presenter. Sometimes the editing comments expressively, such as when it contrasts the utopian ambition of the Gagarinland theme-park project with an image of an elderly lady pushing a handcart in front of the town’s Vostok hotel, suggesting the flipside of the town’s underlying poverty.

gagarinWhile the tone at times is satirical, there is also here a serious attempt to examine the way in which Russia’s remembrance of Gagarin has become both part of the religious revival as well as a source of Russian patriotic fervor in a post-Communist country hungry for unifying symbols. These mutations in the meaning of his feat would probably have surprised the Communist Party member, Gagarin, whose flight was used at the time to promote atheism, since, as Khrushchev put it,  he had not encountered God during his voyage to the stars. Although it does not specifically address this shift, the film does depict the many faces of the present-day Gagarin cult, such as the town’s wedding parties visiting the Gagarin statue, just as elsewhere they visit the war memorial, and the special Gagarin pioneer movement, who swear solemn oaths in his name, and sing songs in his praise.

The half-a-century gap between Gagarin’s flight and the present day is explored in a number of sequences that employ archive footage. In one of the film’s rare lapses of taste, we see Chekusov, the policeman-poet, watching television footage of Gagarin’s triumphant return to Moscow: he rises to his feet applauding, shouting the patriotic chant of ‘Ra-Si-Ya,’ as if he was watching a live football match in a bar, and not a 50-year old film recording in a canteen. Gagarin’s niece, is also associated with the archive footage recording Gagarin’s moment of glory, but then also with more ambiguous images of him walking or driving away. The effect here is intriguing, suggesting the distance to the time of Gagarin, as well as a sense of loss at his departure from his home town and ultimately at his death. In such moments Gagarinland underlines the unbridgeable rupture between the present and Gagarin so as to stimulate reflection on the process of memorialization and commemoration. In so doing, it paints a fascinating portrait of a provincial town desperately striving to assert its global significance as it nurtures and attempts to control the memory of its prodigal product. At its best, there is here a well-observed sense of a different provincial Russia from that so often shown in art documentaries: rather than the usual cast of self-destruction and alcoholism, we see people who are at once mildly amusing and slightly overbearing, admirably energetic, but faintly absurd.

Unfortunately, the film concludes weakly, by contrasting the people of Gagarin’s home town with images of his descendents in America undergoing the citizenship acquisition rituals. Here, the director has less of a feel for the material than he has for his provincial eccentrics, and comments on contemporary Russia too directly. At its best, however, Gagarinland amuses and stimulates reflection with its mordant observational humor.

Jeremy Hicks
Queen Mary University of London

Comment on this article on Facebook

Works Cited

Robin McKie, "Sergei Korolev: the rocket genius behind Yuri Gagarin", The Observer 13 March 2011

 


Gagarinland, France 2010
Color, 85 minutes
Scenario and Direction: Vladimir Kozlov
Photography: Christian Deloeil, Olivier Pulinckx, Alain Saurat
Editing: Fabien Daguerre
Sound: Philippe Fabbri, Joël Casteleyn
Director’s assistant: Irina Ivakhova
Original Music: Nicolas Debard
Production: Les Docs du Nord and Les Films de la Castagne

Vladimir Kozlov: Gagarinland (France, 2010)

reviewed by Jeremy Hicks © 2011

Updated: 11 Apr 11