BY: MIROSLAV TOMOSKI
Wandering around a now-abandoned government complex carved into the side of a mountain, Slovenian film maker, Žiga Virc, had come to investigate a myth. The bunkered complex, known as Object 505, is a Yugoslav version of Area 51 and has been the source of wild conspiracies since the day it was built. For Virc it is the inspiration for his new film, Houston We Have a Problem, a docu-fiction which tells the story of the fabled Yugoslav space program and its role in the space race of the 1960s.
While working on a previous film, Virc discovered a trove of myths surrounding the former communist country that led him down a historical rabbit hole. The story that caught his attention – and the one he tells in his documentary – is of a secret space program that was sold to the Americans and helped send NASA into space for the first time.
“We had opened up this box of Yugoslav topics and I started to wonder if we can push it even further.” He says, “We started researching and we found out there’s a lot of archives and myths about Yugoslavia. Even Yugoslavia as a country was a myth; full of secrets and controversies.”
The film premiered at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival in the spring of 2016 and is still touring around the world. It has been submitted as an Oscar contender for Best Foreign Language Film, receiving praise from those who understand its trolling nature and confusing those who attend screenings and expect to see a historical documentary. Using archived footage to construct an alternative interpretation of history, it left many theater goers stunned and questioning what they had just seen, and as Virc himself might say, that was exactly the point.
“There were two main goals, the first was to make an entertaining film with a catchy story – a film, not an encyclopedia or a scientific paper.” Virc says, “The second was to show the tip of the iceberg of media manipulation and overall passive approach we take to the information we get every day.”
Some have criticized the film for promoting a false narrative of history, and many at its premiere were visibly irritated. But Virc doesn’t seem to mind and considers it all part of the discussion he intended to start.
“Overall there seems to be a never-ending debate about what’s real and what’s not.” He says, aiming to encourage his audience to question the information their given. “That is also the reason why we don’t call it a mockumentary, as these types of films usually want you to believe in something. We did the opposite and asked people to be critical.”
Others in online forums have seen it as proof that Yugoslavia was indispensable to the development of the American space program. For them it offers an alternative story of Yugoslavia’s history, while for Virc it is a testament to what a compelling storyteller can do.
“The more a film takes on realistic approach in its visual and storytelling style, the more people believe in it.” He says, “I’m sure you could find people who believe there was a guy named Forrest Gump who showed his ass to [President] Johnson.”
But while the myth that drives the film is not meant to be taken at face value, it also reveals that the same approach ought to be taken with history. It challenges the conventional wisdom of the Cold War which often paints communism and capitalism in an oil and water relationship for nearly half a century – Yugoslavia seemed to be different.
“Yugoslavia was a tiny layer between that oil and water. It took a very pragmatic approach to world politics, being geographically between east and west and taking the best of both worlds.” Virc says, “I wanted to show Yugoslav-style communism and capitalism going hand in hand in the film, as if there were no major differences between them. Everybody wanted to trade something and live a good life.”
Some of Virc’s story was put together with clear plan, but the process that led him to the final product was a tedious journey through the historical equivalent of discovering old home videos in the attic. It took Studio Virc four and a half years of sifting through old 35mm reels that had never been seen before by the public in order to piece together their narrative.
“There were many shots which you simply can’t imagine in a script, such as Tito in a swimsuit.” Virc says, “We discovered hours of highly interesting footage, such as Tito visiting North Korea’s president Kim Il-Sung with their kids singing Yugoslav songs, but it simply didn’t find a place in the film.”
The end result is a journey through history, as well as modern day Slovenia, accompanied by an exiled engineer who claims to have worked on the project before he was shipped to America to help NASA with its Apollo program. Yet even the legitimacy of the scientist has been questioned with some claiming he was simply an actor.
“I think it has always been very easy to manipulate the facts or ‘truth’ itself because people never really had a way to check the facts.” Virc said, when asked if it is harder to get away with misinformation in the age of the smartphone and unlimited connectivity. He believes that despite the information at our fingertips, “most social media users don’t take the time to distinguish between a well-written journalistic piece and PR-influenced marketing message.”
As far as his own work of misinformation, Virc considers it a victory if his audience approaches the film with skepticism and are driven to dig deeper. With studies showing that 60 percent of social media users rarely make it past the headline of an article, the information age has given rise to a sink or swim society in which most have chosen to sink. Houston We Have a Problem offers its viewers a chance to make that choice or resign themselves to the words Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek uses to wrap up the film, “even if it didn’t happen, it’s true.”