SILVERDOCS 2010: space tourists, barbershop punk, my perestroika

This year, I got a slight reprieve from my busy work schedule to take advantage of my screener pass to SILVERDOCS.  As usual, I assembled an ambitious schedule of film screenings using their clever online tool… and made it to less than half of the things I’d picked.  With selections as rich and provocative as these, there’s really only so many documentaries my brain could handle in a day.  Add in some physical discomfort – freezing cold theaters, periodic hunger pangs, and an increasingly tired ass – and I discovered my limit was roughly 3 films per day.  Here’s day 1 in review.

Space Tourists (Christian Frei, 2009)

Space Tourists quickly caught my eye when I first skimmed the program because a trip into a space is definitely a childhood dream of mine.  I would’ve happily watched a 98-minute documentary about the process of going into space as a private citizen.  But the film actually weaves three stories together: space tourism through the Russian space program, the farmers and scrap dealers who chase the falling rocket stages in Kazakhstan, and the race for privatized spaceflight with the X-Prize competitions.

The tourism thread largely features Anousheh Ansari as she prepares for flight on Soyuz and spends eight days on the International Space Station.  It also follows Microsoft’s Charles Simonyi as he trains for his first Soyuz flight at Russia’s Star City compound.  There, he undergoes medical testing and intensive training (both physical and procedural) in order to qualify for flight.  (Simonyi also had to taste dozens of Russian space foods to make his selections.  The goulash looked good, but there was an assortment of canned fish dishes that seemed wholly unappetizing to him – and me.)  It was fascinating to see what these “tourists” must undergo in order to spend time on Soyuz and the ISS.  I think I could hack it – if I could come up with the $20 million to buy a ticket.

For me, the story of the Kazakhs chasing falling rockets for scrap metal turned out to be the most interesting.  Since the United States launches rockets from a coastal facility, all of the rocket stages fall into the ocean.  Russia wanted to launch with greater secrecy, so their launch facility is in the middle of the continent and the spent stages fall into farmlands and desolate steppes.  The metal that lands is incredibly pure and valuable, and it’s a contrast to see its two main uses – scrap dealers painstakingly dissecting the metal to sell it off, and farmers making what use they can from it (shovels, roof repairs, or just shoving it under the bushes to get it out of the way).  It’s such a bizarre result of the space program.

The X-Prize thread seemed a bit out of place between these other stories.  I could’ve done without it, though it does give the viewer some hope that more affordable private space travel may be in sight.  Overall, the film stylishly and engagingly wove all of this together into a look at places that we don’t usually get to see.

Barbershop Punk (Georgia Sugimura Archer, 2010)

Finally, someone has explained net neutrality in terms that people can understand! Though the filmmakers apparently intended to make a documentary about the results of digital piracy, Barbershop Punk turned into a film about the battles over bandwidth and freedom of speech.  A few years ago, I’d heard the tale of Robb Topolski, who discovered that Comcast was limiting his ability to share files on the internet.  His network tests revealed some unsettling news: his ISP was applying a filter to preferentially handle content for its customers.  Robb’s story becomes the cornerstone for the film’s net neutrality discussion.

What follows is a variety of interviews, hearings, and other footage that present the issue of net neutrality and the major arguments (and misunderstandings) about it.  I’ve been concerned with net neutrality ever since I first heard about it, but it’s a hard topic to discuss – most people don’t really grasp what it is, and it’s often tangled with other issues of content ownership and network management.  This film does an excellent job of explaining net neutrality without any mix-ups.  It gives context, history, and perspectives that get to the root of the problem.  I wish there could be an abridged version to show people the fundamental issues of net neutrality.

It’s always interesting to see a film like this in a theater, hearing people laugh at the irony that Comcast is a major festival sponsor and gasp when a representative of the music industry says something particularly moronic about net neutrality being an issue about piracy (umm, no).  And to get the opportunity to applaud whistle-blower Topolski and ask questions of the filmmakers afterward is a treat.  I can’t wait to see who picks this film up for distribution – I’m hoping for some broadcast showings.

My Perestroika (Robin Hessman, 2010)

It was interesting to see two films about Russia in one day – especially two that strongly feature Soviet history and its effect on the people.  My Perestroika follows five childhood friends who grew up together in Moscow during the 1970s, experienced the fall of communism and subsequent rebuilding, and are now raising their own families under a regime that is increasingly similar to the USSR of their childhood.  It’s chilling.

The filmmaker struck out to find the right group of Russian friends and struck upon a goldmine – five adults with very different lives, still living relatively near each other, with a cache of home movies and photographs to document their early days.  Hessman then spent countless days interviewing them in their apartments and following them through their daily lives, documenting their thoughts about the Soviet regime, Perestroika, and the Russia they’re living in today.  It’s especially interesting to see this through the eyes of two history teachers, who note the famous concept that Russian history is “unpredictable” and are now being forced to teach from government-censored textbooks much like the ones they learned from themselves.

The film is nothing fancy, but it’s wonderfully woven together – home movies, propaganda films, historical footage, interviews, and scenes from the very different lives of the five friends.  They express nostalgia for the Russia of their youth, disillusionment about the government, and an interesting perspective on the differences between East and West.

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