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LOCARNO 2019 Filmmakers of the Present

Elsa Kremser, Levin Peter • Directors of Space Dogs

“We wanted to find out what dogs think about our world”


- Cineuropa met with Elsa Kremser and Levin Peter, the directors behind the most controversial title in the Locarno Film Festival, Space Dogs, to talk about looking down at the dogs and up to the stars

Elsa Kremser, Levin Peter  • Directors of Space Dogs
(© Marco Abram)

Elsa Kremser and Levin Peter’s Space Dogs [+see also:
film review
interview: Elsa Kremser, Levin Peter
film profile
, showing in the Filmmakers of the Present section at the Locarno Film Festival, starts with Laika the dog, the first animal in space, but soon expands in several unexpected directions: the film brings us into the world of Moscow strays; shows never-before-seen archive footage dating back to the 1960s; elaborates on ancient mythologies; and even mentions Terry Pratchett’s giant space turtle Great A’Tuin. Not to mention a certain unfortunate cat.

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Cineuropa: You talk a lot about cruelty in your film. But you do not only show what was done in the past, as proven by a certain “cat scene” bound to become infamous.
Levin Peter: There was no chance to stop it. For months we learned how to follow the dogs through the city, and it’s interesting that, when it finally became technically possible to do so, this whole thing happened. We wanted to show how the city is impacting them. From their perspective, everything is much more confusing.

Elsa Kremser: If you are just looking down at them, you can’t understand their expressions. But when you sit down and actually look them right in the eyes, it’s a completely different thing. We didn’t expect something that cruel. And then, it was just over. Within seconds. But it was important to show it, to show the wildness of these animals.

I remember seeing pictures of Laika as a child, not necessarily thinking about what really happened to her. What made you want to analyse it more deeply?
EK: At the beginning, there was no Laika in the story. We knew she was the first animal in space and we knew that she died. But how? We wanted to talk about stray dogs, and we were looking for another layer to the film when we found out she was actually born on the streets of Moscow.

LP: All we know about Laika are a few images and legends. We wanted to focus on what she might have experienced in these two years. All the footage you see in the film came from the Moscow archives — it took us 3 years to get it. To see these dogs after 22 days in space, still in their capsules, see how they try to take their first steps back on Earth…

EK: It was never shown before — it was just a scientific documentation of the process. It’s tough to watch and they never wanted to make it public, but after a while, they started to trust us. We said we wanted to show what happened. We didn’t want to judge.

It’s absurd to think about all these Russian scientists picking up strays from the streets. Even though dogs dominate the film, you also tell a story about humankind, one that isn’t very positive.
EK: We met some of the people who worked with these dogs and knew Laika. They were driving around in military trucks, catching these animals and measuring them to see if they would fit in a capsule. It’s an odd image, yes. When we were discovering the city with the dogs, we realised we always think of them in relation to our world. They are rescue dogs, poor strays that need our help, or they’re our best friends. But we don’t know their perspective! We wanted to find out what they think about our world.

LP: And to show this Moscow of dogs. What became clear was that it needed to be a night or an early morning film — this is their time, and the few humans they encounter at that time are also stray, in a way: homeless or heading to bars.

EK: We are often asked if we wanted to take one of them home or adopt, but after making this film, it’s actually tough to see a dog on a leash sometimes. Every dog is different, but these animals are often happy there. It’s dangerous, but we felt that they liked their freedom.

With the added narration, Space Dogs feels like a brutal bedtime story. The soothing sound of Aleksey Serebryakov’s voice stands in sharp contrast with what he is actually describing.
LP: We wanted his voice to create the image of an old, broken scientist, finally sharing his secrets. We found diaries of some of the people working back then and everything was there: the right tone, the mythology they created. The story of the turtles carrying the world, mentioned at the end of the film, dates back to ancient times — even Terry Pratchett stole it at one point. [laughter]. The more we found out about these “space dogs”, the more we realised it wasn’t just about using these animals for tests, to be measured by machines. They were turning them into pop stars! Laika was chosen also for her looks — she looked great in all these black-and-white pictures. In these diaries, next to their physical characteristics, there would be a note about whether the dogs looked “heroic” enough.

EK: What we didn’t include in the film was the fact that after Laika’s death, Nikita Khrushchev wanted answers. So they took three other dogs to show him exactly what happened. He was supposedly sitting there, watching them die. Only to say: “Ok. Now I understand.”

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