Sometimes a production ident appearing at the start of a film can be a guide to its reading. Space (Prostir) may open with text informing the viewer that it was shot in quarantine during the Covid-19 pandemic by self-isolated participants filming with their own smartphones or cameras and communicating with the director Dmitriy Tomashpolski (Stranger, 2019) online (and offscreen), and it may begin with a montage of various people waking up in the morning, dressing and eating – all to suggest that the title refers to those domestic spaces in which each of us has been locked down under the Coronavirus. Yet that introductory ident, Gagarin Media Film Company, hints at a different reference point for the title: the outer space to which the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was the first human to travel, even as he was himself confined to the cramped interior of Vostok 1.
Indeed this is a film preoccupied with spaces both inner and outer – those strange psychological places into which isolation has boxed us, and the open exteriors beyond the window or door that we have come to desire and fear in equal measure. Near the beginning of Space we see a bird of prey (filmed from a high-rise apartment) flying through a cityscape, as a symbol of the soaring freedom beyond the grasp of quarantine. Much later in the film, we will hear the voice of Ukrainian cosmonaut Pavlo Popovych, recorded on board Vostok 4 singing “Why am I not a falcon? Why am I not flying?” (lyrics by Mykhailo Petrenko, music by Ludmyla Aleksandrova), and then various cover versions of the same song. Here images and ideas shift in their meaning across Space (and time), as inside and outside are confounded, and the heavens become an elusive locus of dreamy, deferred flight from Covid’s reality. Here, humanity remains, even beyond the stratosphere, at best a caged bird.
In cross-cutting between 76 different human subjects (and their various pets) performing similar – but not identical – activities, Tomashpolski (who spent nine months with Olena Demianenko editing 700 hours of footage) conveys the idea of pandemic and solitude creating a common experience throughout a compartmentalised, housebound populace. It is also an uncommon experience: for while Space might begin with its participants carrying out everyday routines, under Tomashpolski’s remote (and effaced) direction, they are soon engaged in more surreal, disturbing actions. While in the film’s first half nobody is heard speaking, there is plenty of sighing, grunting, discordant singing and screaming (of the primal variety), all captured in Tomashpolski’s unnerving sound design, as these characters dance and play-act, make art and masturbate, take up arms and struggle with doors, or even hide in yet smaller spaces.
This is a mass performance of pent-up interior life, and a not-quite-silent existential tragicomedy of the absurd and the existential, as loneliness, frustration, boredom, paranoia, despair and the need for self-expression are reduced to in-house yelps into the void. Along the way, there are plenty of poetic vignettes: a man forlornly challenged by a large dumpling in his soup; a woman unable to hear her partner’s voice via a dodgy online connection even as he is unable to see her image; a news anchor (in Space‘s only extended sequence with dialogue) who imagines that someone has placed an implant in her flesh, and then exhibits increasingly demented behaviours; a man who tries to nurse a fallen bird back to life, and must then lament its death; and an act of casual murder on a staircase, leading to the victim becoming even more tightly enclosed.
Eventually the films settles on the recurring image of an archetypal alien visitor to encapsulate the participants’ deep yearning for alterity and for contact with something outside of their enforced everyday imprisonment. The subjects are shown creating the image of the alien through amateur arts and crafts, donning alien masks (some simple, some very elaborate) of their own making to become the other themselves, suffering panicky home invasions and abductions, and waiting open-armed for the unseen mothership to sweep them up into a better space of the imagination. Those aliens embody all at once the unwelcome intrusions of Covid-19, and an out-of-body, off-world escape from the disease’s mundane oppressions.
The grey, unearthly presence of the aliens may introduce an explicit note of science fiction to the film, but really it is the human animal that is being othered here, as Tomashpolski’s chaotic cut-ups defamiliarise our domestic lives and shows the quiet madness of protracted incarceration at home. Space ends as it begins – with flight, and with an alien’s view of this eccentric ensemble, still abandoned and entrapped and looking to the clouds. The film may ultimately feel a little overextended for an abstract experiment, but that too conveys something essential about our collective lockdown experience.
strap: Dmitriy Tomashpolski’s experimental documentary captures the collective psychology/psychosis of lockdown
© Anton Bitel