Ask Andrei Ujica about what it was like to shoot his second feature documentary, Out of the Present, and you won’t get what could be called a “pedestrian” reply. A Romanian expatriate academic living in Germany, Ujica is not a person given to hype. Still, words like “cosmic” and “eternity” crop up. “A cosmic shot is all the time a shot with two or three objects in eternity,” Ujica explains, in his born-in-Timisoara accent. “You have the earth, the sun, the space station. In eternity.”
We are talking about how to frame, time, and light in conditions no 20th century film school will ever prepare you for. Out of the Present takes place about as far from Hollywood as currently possible: earth orbit, specifically the Russian space station Mir. The film was shot partly in collaboration with famed Russian cinematographer Vadim Yusov, DP on Tarkovsky’s Solaris, among many other Soviet-era films. It was lit by “the Big Gaffer.”
After becoming a “surprise audience hit” at the Rotterdam Film Festival in early ‘96 (per Variety), Out of the Present went into something of an orbit of its own — between various international film festivals, where it won a number of awards, including Best Director for Ujica at the San Marino International Film Festival in March. The film will open at New York’s Millenium Film Archive in early January, and play in major North American cities during ‘97. The distributor is Noon Pictures.
Apart from it’s other achievements, which are considerable, Out of the Present features the first 35mm motion-picture film ever exposed in space. Designed by Ujica with Yusov, the shots were actually filmed by the Russian cosmonauts. A lengthy consultation with engineers and technicians of the Russian Space Agency was necessary. “You have only 45 minutes of light per day, and 45 of night,” Ujica explains. “And in that 45, you have probably only ten minutes with a good lighting situation to make your shot. And the shot is four minutes.” Cooperation between the filmmakers and the Space Agency was so close that the spacecraft’s trajectory was actually scheduled to create the best lighting. The extended take in question — framing the jewel-like Mir and terminating with a majestically serene slo-mo docking by the Salyut spacecraft/camera platform with the station — opens the film in a suitably mind-blowing fashion.
All this may sound very high-tech, but Out of the Present is no specialised science doc. It’s a piece of film art, complete with well-done references/tributes to both 2001 and Solaris. At it’s core is a story about Soviet Cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev, who was in orbit in Mir when a revolution took place below. He left the ground as a Soviet citizen and landed — after long delays, partly for political reasons — ten months later, a cosmonaut of the Russian republic. The mesmerizing material of the earth in space, largely shot on video, is intercut with footage of tanks rumbling through the Moscow streets, headed for the barricades surrounding the Russian White House during the August 1991 Putsch.
Interviewed by radio from Moscow (already the capital of Russia, not the USSR), Cosmonaut Krikalev is asked which of the changes on the earth below impresses him most. “Hard to say,” the cosmonaut replies. “So much has happened. But what surprises me most of all, perhaps, is this: Just now it was night, but now it’s light and the seasons rush past. That’s most impressive of all you can see from up here… ” His voice fades to silence, engulfed in a vast vacuum at the end of an era.
Out of the Present contains many other virtues. The images of earth, moon, and sun from orbit rank with the most exquisite ever recorded by a camera. One shot in particular, of the sun gradually easing below the horizon while simultaneously skating laterally due to the station’s movement, encompasses a thousand conventional sun-sets in its delicate kinetic tracery of cloud-scapes.
Finally, the extraction of the returned cosmonauts from the tiny, charred cinder of their capsule — after a blazing-hot, old-fashioned heat-shield reentry which the US, with it’s space-plane, has almost forgotten — is inexpressibly moving. The voyagers have to be physically wrestled out of the narrow hatch. Covered with sweat, disoriented, frequently unable to walk unassisted after months of weightlessness, this scene of recovery is redolent with overtones of birth, or re-birth. Sitting feebly in a folding chair, a cosmonaut is handed a steaming cup. He takes a sip and closes his eyes. “Lovely tea,” he says with a sigh, “that’s so good.” Leaning his head back, we see sunlight reflect from his wet forehead. His hair ruffles in the breeze. “And the weather — it’s wonderful.”
Ujica’s first film was 1992’s Videogramme einer Revolution — a film essay, made in collaboration with German director Harun Farocki, which skilfully deconstructed the role of state television during the Romanian revolution. His next will be a fiction narrative, to be shot in Hong Kong with Vadim Yusov. “A deep friendship developed between us”, the filmmaker explains from Berlin, his voice echoing across the satellite bounce.