Issue 39 (2013)

Veit Helmer: Baikonur (2012)

reviewed by Vida Johnson © 2013

My late night guilty pleasure at the 34th Moscow International Film Festival turned out to be a modern-day international fairy tale about a French “astronaut,” Julie Mahe, a paying passenger on a space mission launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, who falls back to Earth a “Sleeping Beauty” only to be awakened by the kiss of “Gagarin,” a local Kazakh youth and would-be cosmonaut who tracks the space launches and landings in order to help the local villagers “harvest” and sell for scrap the rocket metal that falls to earth.

baikonurActually this paragraph-length sentence tells pretty much the whole story, except that, of course, complications ensue: Sleeping Beauty is tall, beautiful, voluptuous, with long blond hair and blue eyes, a real wonder in the spare Kazakh landscape among the provincial, dark-haired Kazakh villagers who don’t see many outsiders. As one might expect, not only the youthful, virginal Gagarin, but the older experienced male villagers want to keep this gift from the sky… And then, in addition, there is Gagarin’s friend Nasira, a local Cinderella, whose grimy face, disheveled hair, and dirty, shapeless clothing, cannot hide (at least not from the viewer) her authentic Kazakh beauty and spirit (more about this later). And when the French billionaire, Julie Mahe, who paid USD 20million for a week of research on a space ship, has a bad landing in the steppe, it is Gagarin who finds the comatose astronaut and Nasira who advises him to awaken her with a kiss. When his pecks are ineffectual, Nasira kisses him hard, showing him how successfully to awaken a Sleeping Beauty. The film’s director, who specializes in children’s films, clearly has fun here in mixing up our favorite fairy tales, and having Cinderella, at least momentarily, be a proxy Prince Charming.

baikonurHowever, even after Gagarin’s passionate kiss awakens the French astronaut, she still has no memory, and through a series of misunderstandings that follow is named “koketai,” Kazakh for “fiancée” or “bride” as Gagarin applies the rule of the steppe which allows the villagers to keep the fallen rocket metal: “What falls from the sky is given by God for all time to whoever finds it.” And as this is a 21st century fairy tale, the awakened beauty does not regain her memory until she and Gagarin indulge in some lovely outdoor sex, literally on the Kazakh land, where it is this local Prince Charming who apparently loses his virginity. She is French after all! Although the film both indulges in and pokes fun at gender and ethnic stereotyping, it does so with a breezy and disarming humor. But Gagarin also clearly “performs” well in the situation, thus allowing us to tease out of the film that the West may once again be conquered, not by Chinghiz Khan, but by a Kazakh Prince Charming. 
  
baikonurNeither the kiss nor the sex lead our fairy tale heroes to living “happily ever after:” An angry Julie, smitten by space and not by Prince Charming, takes off for the Baikonur Cosmodrome to continue preparing for other space flights. Undaunted, Gagarin pursues her, even getting a job testing the admittedly sometime faulty post-soviet equipment that spins him at amazing speeds which scientists acknowledge he withstands “just like Gagarin.” So besides his ability to communicate in very good English with potential scrap metal buyers, and to build from scratch some very sophisticated tracking equipment, this Gagarin has superhuman ability to withstand more “G’s” than a normal human ever could. In order to have a final meeting with Julie he even manages to delay a space flight (by smearing good Kazakh dung on a knob). Not bad for a contemporary fairy tale hero. In fact, this sweet and unspoiled hero, who wants to help everyone, comes off as very genuine and earnest, a first film role wonderfully played by a young man actually raised in a Kazakh village, (although he did study theater acting).
 
baikonurWhat is most striking in this co-production directed by a German filmmaker is that this film ends, as do so many recent Central Asian films, with the hero choosing not the more glamorous life associated with the more technological and urban environment ( in this case working at Baikonur), but he puts on traditional Kazakh garb and goes back to the village and the land to help his grandfather continue to eke out a living, this time by raising sheep as the Russians are now collecting the carcinogenic rocket metal. After Julie has chosen space exploration over him, Gagarin is rewarded with Cinderella, who has transformed herself, ( thanks to the bathtub Gagarin had bought for his Sleeping Beauty), into a lovely young woman who puts on the appropriate traditional Kazakh clothing, and who comes to sit quietly and to support Gagarin (after yelling at him for most of the film) as they contemplate their future on a hilltop overlooking a space launch in the distance. This back-to-the-village, back-to-nature and tradition ending clearly plays off the ending of Ernest Abdyjaparov’s recent Kyrgyz hit Pure Coolness (Boz salkyn) and helps to create a new 21st century Central Asian fairy tale.

baikonurBut the film also engages, although often humorously, the post-soviet reality of the literally “fallen empire” symbolized here by the falling pieces of exploding Russian booster rockets; Nasira’s parents had been killed by the debris, the villages are impoverished, the villagers elderly, the metal turns out to be poisonous, even the equipment at Baikonur is occasionally faulty… Yet the actual documentary footage of the real Gagarin’s space flight, intercut at the beginning of the film, also remind those of us raised in the Cold War era, of the mighty Soviet space program located at a secret site which now, in one of the ironic legacies of the Soviet breakup, is leases back to Russia by Kazakhstan. When asked after the festival film screening how he managed to get access to the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the director told a rather funny, but very probable story, typical of the post-soviet Kazakhstan: it involved a negotiation with President Nazarbaev’s daughter who wanted a bit part for her own daughter in the film… The girl turned out to be a natural and was quite charming as the shepherd’s daughter who drives a hard bargain with Gagarin when he buys the lambs to start his sheep farming. And frankly, the filming of the inner workings of the mammoth space site, and the gigantic rockets being delivered on trains for the launch, adds an authenticity to this 21st century fairy tale as well as calls for an ironic contemplation of the realities of post-soviet Kazakhstan and Russia as well.

Vida Johnson
Tufts University

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Baikonur (Germany, Kazakhstan, Russia), 2012
Color, 94 min.
Director: Veit Helmer
Screenplay: Sergei Ashkenazy, Veit Helmer
Cinematography: Kolya Kano
Composer: Goran Bregovic
Producer: Veit Helmer; Co-producers: Gulnara Sarsenova, Anna Katchko,Sergei Selianov
Production: Veit Helmer Filmproduktion in co-production with Eurasia Film Production, Tandem Production, CTB Film Company

Veit Helmer: Baikonur (2012)

reviewed by Vida Johnson © 2013

Updated: 06 Jan 13