Issue 30 (2010)

Inna Evlannikova and Sviatoslav Ushakov: Belka and Strelka. Star Dogs (Belka i Strelka. Zvezdnye sobaki, 2010)

reviewed by Vlad Strukov © 2010

Retro Celebrities: Belka and Strelka and the Dream of Flight

On 19 August 1960, two dogs—Belka [Squirrel] and Strelka [Little Arrow]—flew into outer space aboard Soviet Sputnik-5. They travelled in the company of a few mice, rats, plants and fungi, and returned home alive. On their return, the dogs became international celebrities, as they were the first earth-bound creatures to go into space. Later on, Strelka had a few puppies with a male dog also destined for space experiments; one of these puppies—Pushok [Fluff]—was presented to John F. Kennedy’s daughter Caroline by Nikita Khrushchev. Released on 18 March 2010, the film Belka and Strelka carefully replicates the events of the past and thus celebrates the 50th anniversary of the first successful space flight. 

belkaThe narrative is organized as a story within a story, with Strelka’s offspring travelling on a chartered plane to Washington, D.C., meeting the American president and his canine entourage, and conversing with a stunning blonde of some exotic breed. As Pushok attempts to charm her, he retells the events from his parents’ lives and quite possibly imagines “a lot of crazy stuff” on the way in order to impress her. The frame narrative allows not only for the merger between the historical and the fantastical, but also for numerous plot digressions. One of the main additions to the story of Belka and Strelka is the account of their life prior to them joining the team of future cosmonauts. Strelka is shown as a homeless dog, roaming the streets of Moscow together with her friend, the rat Venia. Strelka has experienced many hardships of street life, including hunger, fear, distress, and bullying. She is very independent and begs Venia for help only in critical situations, for example, when she is chased by some merciless dog exterminators. Belka, on the other hand, leads the privileged life of a circus performer: she is a glamorous star of a variety show (or so she imagines herself to be). An accident literally catapults Belka from the comfort of her life into the barbarous environment of Strelka’s life, when the miniature plane Strelka uses during her circus stunt misfires and crashes in a sandpit in the middle of Moscow. Belka and Strelka’s first encounter has no promise of a lasting friendship: they are divided by the differences in upbringing, lifestyle and aspiration.

belkaIronically, Belka and Strelka represent the two competing ideologies of the Soviet regime, the official and the unofficial, the grand and noble, and the mundane and pitiful. The dogs’ opposing mottos—“One for all and all for one” (Odin za vsekh, i vse za odnogo) and “All against one, and everyone for himself” (Vse protiv odnogo i kazhdyi sam za sebia)—summarize their worldviews and account for the position of the dogs in the Soviet society. While Belka is a star in the circus—one of the few art forms irrevocably approved by Stalin’s regime—and enjoys being at the centre of a circle of friends and admirers, Strelka is a homeless dog who lives on the margins of Soviet society. Therefore, Belka and Strelka re-ignites the Soviet paradigms of social mobility (i.e., a small accident might cut short an extremely successful career, or on the contrary, unexpectedly provide an individual with social prowess), which are presented in the film as the myth of the circus performer—Belka’s performances are stylized in the manner of the Stalinist musical comedy Circus (1936, dir. by Grigorii Aleksandrov) starring the immensely popular Liubov’ Orlova—as well as the myth of a social outcast and trickster—Strelka’s misfortunes are reminiscent of ‘the children of Lieutenant Schmidt’ immortalized in Il’ia Il’f and Evgenii Petrov’s novel Twelve Chairs (Dvenadtsat’ stul’ev, 1928) adapted for the screen by Leonid Gaidai in 1971.  

belkaIn its attitude to the Soviet past, the film is both nostalgic and ironic. In the first instance, it presents an idealized vision of the Soviet regime, with people enjoying a Pioneer’s bun (pionerskii bublik), a good show in the circus, and a pleasant stroll. At the same time, the explosive violence in Moscow’s streets, the menacing dog-catchers and shabby barracks where the future space explorers reside, all suggest quite a different image of the Soviet past. Moreover, Belka and Strelka—like many other contemporary film and TV productions, for example, Dmitrii Kisilev and Aleksandr Voitynskii’s Black Lightning (Chernaia molniia, 2009)—resorts to the Soviet past as a source of unsolved mysteries, as a space where uncanny phenomena originate, and as an era that still miraculously controls contemporary Russia.   

belkaDramatic twists in the plot of Belka and Strelka have fortunate resolutions. The dog-exterminators in fact act on behalf of the space agency, and the dogs are sent to a training centre in the vicinity of the Baikonur space station. There, Belka and Strelka join a team of other future cosmonauts and enter a competition to select the first animals to fly into space. Their trainer is the short-spoken dog Kazbek, who trains them in a Spartan manner; his training ethos boils down to the extraordinary “Everything that does not kill helps build the character”, and he persistently dismisses Belka’s complaints about the obvious discomforts in the training centre by shouting “This is not a party to celebrate International Women’s Day”. The characters of Belka and Kazbek reinforce Soviet gender stereotypes—he seems like a brutal macho with a tender heart, whereas she appears to be independent, but is in fact unable to achieve her goal without the help of a man. So it comes as no surprise that these adversaries develop a romantic relationship with many comic situations arising on the way; a good point of comparison is Iurii Chekiukin and Lev Indenbom’s comedy Gals (Devchiata 1961) that captures the optimistic spirit of Khrushchev’s Russia.

belkaThe romance between Belka and Kazbek develops not only on the ground, but also in space: eventually Belka, Strelka, Venia and some other creatures fly into space, with Kazbek secretly hiding at the back of the ship. The main purpose of their flight is actually to replace a severely discharged battery of a communication sputnik and send it back on its orbit. When a fire breaks out on the spaceship, Kazbek comes to the rescue. Belka and Kazbek declare their love for each other. While Belka is motivated by the promise of success and romance, Strelka is determined to reach outer space because she believes to find her father among the stars. She is eventually able to spot a glimpse of him among star constellations and successfully recovers from the trauma of an abandoned child.

belkaThus, the film is rich in dramatic situations and psychological motifs aimed at both children and parents securing the success of the film as family entertainment. The same applies to the wealth of visual and verbal puns, some of which are extremely smart as they target those who still remember the absurdities of Soviet life. For example, Venia describes the Baikonur space station as “a pioneer camp on the Chinese border”; in her typically coarse manner, Strelka refers to a problem on the spaceship as the quite untranslatable “Chto-to szadi u nas tarakhtit” (Something’s rumbling in our backside). Kazbek is particularly funny, because his speech is a peculiar re-mix of Soviet army jargon: he instructs the new space conscripts that “The motherland begins and ends line of the barrier” (Rodina nachnaetsia i zakanchivaetsia s polosy prepiatsvii); he shouts at the training dogs, “Hold your breath and don’t step on your tails” (Derzhim dykhanie, na khvosty ne nastupaem); and he dismisses the Cat when he corrects Kazbek’s solipsism, “Don’t muddle with my grammar” (Ne lez’ ko mne v grammatiku). A special source of humor in the film is the clash between the phrases spoken by characters in English at the start of the film and their dubbed translations into Russian: for example, President Kennedy calls Pushok “a stupid Russian dog,” which is translated as “zagadochnaia russkaia dusha” (mysterious Russian soul).

belkaThe film recycles not only Soviet plots, legends and traditions: Belka and Strelka—like all Soviet and Russian cosmonauts—watch White Sun of the Desert (Beloe solntse pustyni, 1970) before the flight, but also Soviet iconography of animated films. For example, the characters of Strelka and Belka are based on Bobik and Barbos from Vladimir Popov’s Bobik visits Barbos (Bobik v gostiakh u Barbosa 1977); the circus setting is reminiscent of Fedor Khitruk’s Boniface’s Holiday (Kanikuly Bonifatsiia, 1965) about a circus lion who takes a break and travels to Africa; Belka’s circus friends are similar to the circus performers in Ivan Ufimtsev’s Losharik (1971); and the Crow whose is chasing her cheese is a reincarnation of Aleksandr Tatarskii’s Plasticine Crow (Plastilinovaia vorona 1981), based on Ivan Krylov’s fable about a crow and fox. From Pixar Studios, Belka and Strelka borrows the character of Venia—Ratatouille—whose role is to mediate between the characters and fill in the gaps in the narrative by marvellously funny gibberish. As a matter of fact, the character of Venia is one of the main achievements of the film: dubbed by Evgenii Mironov, the rat delights the viewer with psychological depth and infectious laughter. Equally strong are the performances by Sergei Garmash as Kazbek and Irina Iakovleva as Strelka.

belkaThe film was produced by the Centre for National Film, with financial support from the Russian Ministry of Culture. The studio, previously known as Tsentrnauchfilm (Central Popular Science Film Studio) and originally founded in 1933, is known for producing a wide range of animated films. In the past few years, the Centre has released animated advertisements, educational films, such as Constructivism (Konstruktivism, dir. Varvara Urizchenko, 2010); documentaries and films for television (for example, the series Historic Miniatures / Istoricheskie miniatury, 2008-present, that explore events and literary works of the past); as well as more traditional genres of animation, as for example Zalina Bideeva’s stunningly beautiful and emotionally deep adaptation of Leonid Andreev’s short story Little Angel (Angelochek 2008) and her extraordinary Dead Souls (Mertvye Dushi 2010), based on the novel by Nikolai Gogol’, or Ekaterina Shabanova’s graphically complex From Top to Tail (Do konchika khvosta, 2009), and many more.

belkaBelka and Strelka attracted audiences not by technological tricks—the film was released as Russia’s first 3-D feature, but it was in fact produced as CGI animation, with the 3-D effect added digitally at the post-production stage; rather, it impresses by the star voices and thematic emphasis on national pride and nostalgia. Belka and Strelka is a peculiar exercise in the extremely popular retro style of contemporary Russian film and television, for example, Valerii Todorovskii’s Hipsters (Stiliagi, 2008) and Sergei Ursuliak’s Liquidation (Likvidatsiia, 2007), where the journey into space turns into the journey back to the USSR, as is also the case in Andrei Maliukov’s We are from the Future (My iz budushchego, 2008). The film creatively combines elements of Soviet and American tradition of animation and works at the intersections of genres, producing a film that is fun for all. Finally, Belka and Strelka appeals to the younger generation, because it affirms the current mode of celebrity culture with its fervent belief that anyone can become a star, even a dog. 

Vlad Strukov
University of Leeds

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Belka and Strelka, Russia, 2010
88 mins
Directors Sviatoslav Ushakov, Inna Evlannikova
Scriptwriters Vadim Sveshnikov, Maxim Sveshnikov
Soundtrack Uma2rman
Production Design/Animation Alexander Khramtsov, Stepan Grudinin, Sviatoslav Ushakov
Voices: Anna Bol’shova, Elena Iakovleva, Sergei Garmash, Aleksander Bashirov, Evgenii Mironov
Producers Sergei Zernov, Vadim Sotskov
Production Centre of National Film, CNF-Anima, with support from the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinematography
Distribution CNF-Anima, Epic Pictures Group Inc. (USA)

Inna Evlannikova and Sviatoslav Ushakov: Belka and Strelka. Star Dogs (Belka i Strelka. Zvezdnye sobaki, 2010)

reviewed by Vlad Strukov © 2010

Updated: 05 Oct 10