Thursday, June 27, 2013

MFF ’13: Baikonur

Just like their Soviet counterparts used to do, Russian cosmonauts watch the Central Asian caper movie White Sun of the Desert before each lift-off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.  Not the surprisingly, the locals have an ambiguously symbiotic relationship to the Russian space program.  One young Kazakh misfit harbors ambitions regarding love and space travel in Veit Helmer’s Baikonur (trailer here), which has its Texas premiere this Saturday at the 2013 Marfa Film Festival.

The men of Iskander “Gagarin” Orinbekov’s village have only one source of employment—salvaging metal cast-off from rocket launches.  A self taught engineer, Orinbekov usually gives them an edge over their competition.  They have a saying: “what drops from the sky is a gift from God.”  Tragically, falling space debris also killed Gargarin’s parents when he was young.  Yet, he still dreams of joining the cosmonauts.  Then one day, Orinbekov discovers French space tourist Julie Mahé’s missing space capsule with her strapped inside.  When she finally comes to, she has a tempting case of amnesia.  Since she fell from the sky, Orinbekov wonders if he can really keep her.

Filmed on location at Baikonur and Star City outside Moscow, Baikonur captures the grand scale of the Russian space facilities.  Helmer really instills a real sense of place in the film and evokes the idealism many people still feel for the daring pursuit of space exploration.  He and cinematographer Kolya Kano frame some striking images throughout the film, juxtaposing the traditional trappings of Orinbekov’s village with the hulking rocket scraps.  Unfortunately, Baikonur eventually runs out of steam, slumping into a rather standard issue star-crossed love tale down the stretch.

Central Asia has been a region of fertile inspiration for Helmer, the German helmer, whose previous film was the likable fable Absurdistan.  However, he loses perspective occasionally in Baikonur.  It is hard to imagine most women in the audience will find the offers to buy Orinbekov’s “fiancée” a funny ha-ha turn of events.

Nonetheless, Alexander Asochakov is engagingly earnest as Orinbekov, despite his limited dialogue.  Conversely, Marie de Villepin (daughter of Sarkozy’s nemesis, Dominique de Villepin) is somewhat vanilla as Mahé.  However, Erbulat Toguzakov has some nicely wry moments as Orinbekov’s grandfather, Rustam.  At one point he tartly laments: “the young are so clever and the world is so dumb.”

When celebrating stargazers and space travelers, Baikonur’s innocent spirit of wonder is genuinely charming.  The question of whether Orinbekov will win back Mahé or possibly start to notice his old childhood friendemy Nazira is considerably harder to get caught up in.  At least the look and the feel of the film are rather special.  Recommended for space program enthusiasts and boosters, Baikonur screens this Saturday (6/29) during the 2013 Marfa Film Festival.