Houston, We Have a Problem!: Mutually reinforcing myths
by Vladan Petkovic
- KARLOVY VARY 2016: Žiga Virc's playful but profound mix of myth and fact screened in the East of the West competition at Karlovy Vary
Houston, We Have a Problem! [+see also:
interview: Žiga Virc
film profile] by Slovenian filmmaker Žiga Virc, screening in East of the West at Karlovy Vary, is a movie for which "mockumentary" wouldn't be a completely fair description. It takes the premise of an ostensible Yugoslav space programme that was sold to the US at the height of the space race in the 1960s, and shapes it through both real-life and fictional characters and stories in order to juxtapose the myths of two countries that reinforce each other – those of Yugoslavia and the United States.
When the Americans realised that they were lagging behind the Soviets in the space race, Kennedy bought a space programme that Tito was secretly developing in Yugoslavia, for several billion dollars. But it turned out that the technology was not exactly functional, so the US also imported 20 Yugoslav scientists who were working on the project. They had to be kidnapped by the Yugoslav secret service and could not even contact their families.
One of them, called Ivan, now returns with the film crew from the States to what is now Croatia and is reunited with his daughter, who lives in Belgrade and has never met her dad. This serves to anchor the story in some human emotions. Meanwhile, a real-life retired general from the Yugoslav army explains how the web of lies, conspiracies and political games between East and the West – with Yugoslavia standing firmly in between – served to boost both the American space programme and the Yugoslav economy under Tito.
To make things both more poignant and more fun, Virc combines archive TV footage of Slovenian star philosopher Slavoj Žižek from the 1980s, when he was a dissident arguing for the introduction of democracy into the Yugoslav system, with interviews carried out with him especially for this film. In these, Žižek argues, “Paradoxically, one of the ways to hide the truth is to present it as a conspiracy theory, expecting that, as such, no one will believe it.”
And this is what Virc does: he combines conspiracy theories and myths, exploring how both can create a certain image of ourselves and our allies or rivals in our consciousness. The myths of Yugoslavia and the United States had reinforced and perpetuated each other in the minds of the common folk, and to this day, these mental structures remain – such as the Yugoslav “socialist paradise” and the American “land of opportunity”. While these ideas have some basis in reality, the situation was always much more complex. But it is easier to believe conspiracy theories and myths because they offer simple explanations that everyone can get their heads around. So, Houston, We Have a Problem! can be seen as a truthful narrative: while these events have not actually taken place, it is not unimaginable that they might have. That is why Virc also adds in the historical fact that in the 1980s, Yugoslavia managed to export the technically inferior Yugo car to the States (with hilarious results, as exemplified in Die Hard: With a Vengeance).
In Houston, We Have a Problem!, Virc deftly combines multiple approaches and, instead of just expanding on one joke, builds a film that explores the nostalgia that both Yugoslav peoples (now Slovenians, Serbs, Croats, Bosnians...) and Americans have for what their countries (used to) represent in their heads. This is perhaps an even stronger and more significant issue to contemplate than just the Yugoslav space programme myth.