Unearthly Views of the World’s Oldest Spaceport

Unearthly Views of the World’s Oldest Spaceport
From Baikonur, Earth (courtesy The Piranesi Experience)

The camera pans across an architectural model of a city — a clean, uniform environment of repetitive gray rectangular buildings and light green trees. Everything appears to be new; it’s a picture-perfect vision of a thriving metropolis. We travel the tiny streets, invited to lay down roots in this sterile utopia. The previous scene presents model spacecraft landed on another planet. These idyllic tableaus stand in stark contrast to what we see in the rest of : vast, otherworldly landscapes populated with ruins and nomadic laborers.

How do we live in the wreckage of our old utopias? What do we do with our aging technological ventures? What does it mean to be frozen in time as we approach 2020, a year that once evoked a far off space age future? In superbly shot and edited sequences, Andrea Sorini’s documentary examines these questions with quiet foreboding. The film will have its US premiere this Friday at the Museum of the Moving Image’s .

Almost half the film dwells in a desert region of Kazakhstan, near the site of the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the world’s first spaceport. Built in the 1950s to launch Sputnik, the facility remains operational to this day, though many of the surrounding structures are abandoned. Children play in former Soviet military buildings, framed by huge amounts of sky and seemingly untouched land. Camels wander around ramshackle homes wedged into the sand. From the perspective of a camera perched on a hillside, we witness distant cars kick up dust along long winding roads leading to launch sites. There is little dialogue, but at one point an older local Kazakh looks at the camera and says, “So you’re interested in space rockets?”

From Baikonur, Earth (courtesy The Piranesi Experience)

If these gorgeous vistas are one kind of time capsule, then the city of Baikonur is another altogether. Murals depict rockets soaring into space. Abstract futuristic constructs are peppered throughout the environment, at odds with the formulaic architecture. In the city center, there’s a monument (perhaps prematurely built) to the father of Russian astronautics, Sergej Pavlovic Korolev. The camera explores (usually empty) buildings with immobile, wide-angled shots reminiscent of Wes Anderson or Wong Kar-wai. At one point, we see a karaoke bar that looks like it came right out of 1980s sci-fi. Baikonur appears less like a real city than it does a model of a city that’s preparing to commemorate an event that won’t end up happening. Is it trapped inside a future that never came, or still waiting for a promised time? After all, the Cosmodrome still sends spacecraft to the International Space Station, as we’re reminded with several truly remarkable long takes that track the hauling of a rocket from the city to the launch site.

Through sequences featuring the first Christian icons in space, the ruins of mosques, and adherents of the ancient religion Tengrism, Baikonur, Earth puts forth a complex understanding of the past, future, and present. Ultimately, the film makes the viewer question what’s more otherworldly: a planet we’ve never visited, or our own?

screens May 17 at the Museum of the Moving Image (36-01 35th Ave, Astoria)