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On the occasion of the Viennale 2019, directors Elsa Kremser and Levin Peter presented the documentary Space Dogs, the first work produced by Raumzeit Filmproduktion, founded by them. Cinema Austriaco had the opportunity to have a chat with them and learn more about their important film and their careers as directors and producers. Interview by Marina Pavido.

Marina Pavido: Space Dogs starts by telling the legend of the little dog Laika, who, after being sent into space inside the Soviet Sputnik capsule, sadly passed away. This legend tells that the dog’s spirit then returned to earth in order to be reincarnated in other stray dogs living in Moscow, in the same neighbourhood where she was born. How did the idea of shooting this story come about?

Elsa Kremser: Initially we wanted to make a film about stray dogs in general. So we wanted to make a film that with a direct approach would also show their everyday life through a particular play of light and shadow. That was the initial idea. Then we came across the story of the little dog Laika, started to research it and thought of giving it the character of an almost supernatural fairy tale. So we discovered that Laika had been born on the street and from there we felt free to create and – even adopting a mise-en-scene with numerous references to the oneiric – to realise this extraordinary story, this legend of Laika’s spirit which, starting from space, returned to Earth.

M. P.: Does your film also, in some way, want to denounce animal abuse?

Levin Peter: The film certainly wants to make us consider questions. Everything we desire everything we want to achieve or simply even our dreams need some ‘forcing’ in order for them to come true. And this often also calls morality into question. In this case, the question arises as to whether or not it is right for animals – during training in anticipation of launching into space – to be treated in the way we have shown. The question is actually to what extent it is right to carry out experiments for scientific or medical purposes and to what extent animals can be used as propaganda tools. In this case it is a dog that is to be launched into space as a cosmonaut, which is something completely unnatural. We, for our part, criticise these treatments, even though everything in our film is staged in fairy-tale tones and also with several references to Disney films. For instance: can animals really somehow ‘impersonate’ a human being? Can they also, in some way, represent us, even in terms of particular physical or character attributes?

M. P.: It is said that, on set, it is always complicated to work with animals. Was it also difficult for you to work with the two dogs?

E. K.: Right from the start we knew that we wanted to make such a film, that we wanted to observe the lives of these dogs so closely and we knew that this would take a lot of time. And we also knew that, in terms of the production itself, we would need many days of work and also a lot of money, since we had to follow the daily lives of the two dogs so closely. Prior to filming, we also had to do a lot of research and, in the end, of the twelve weeks we had available, only five weeks were left for filming. And it must also be said that in the beginning, the dogs were not used to our presence or the cameras, they were defensive, looked at us and so on. And we didn’t really know how to relate to them at first either. But then, over time, a kind of trust naturally developed and they started to behave naturally, almost as if they unconsciously realised that they were the leading actors. (laughs)

L. P.: And other difficulties arose when nothing happened, when they did nothing or when they slept, often for hours. At such times we also wondered if we were doing the right thing, if we were making the right film, but then, in the end, we realised how much, in reality, these dogs were able to give us during these weeks of filming.

E. K.: And then, usually, we went there one or two hours per night and we had no idea what was going to happen each time: what they were going to eat, where they were going to take us, etc. And so we happened to discover situations and places we never thought we would know. And that was quite exciting.

M. P.: The scene in which one of the two dogs attacks a cat in the street is probably the most brutal moment in the film. What happened when you shot it?

L. P.: I think the experience we had was very similar to what the audience experienced. At first we didn’t understand what was happening, it was shocking. What happened was that reality suddenly took on a much stronger, more brutal character. There and then I did not think about what was happening, I simply continued doing what we had been doing for months, even though it had become so difficult for us as well. Yet such is life, such is nature. And then all the thoughts and reflections came later: we even discussed it with the crew, wondering why it is still so difficult for us human beings to accept certain situations. Death should be something completely natural, but we still find it difficult to accept it. And then that was a special situation anyway: it was still a dog attacking a domestic cat.

E. K.: And then we were in the city, in a human-dominated environment and not in the wilderness, where such a situation is quite common. But after all, dogs have made the city their natural environment and, in a way, even such an environment can be considered as being in the wilderness.

M. P.: Could it be said that, with regard to precise moments, Space Dogs has an almost neorealist directorial approach?

L. P.: The approach is hyper-realistic, although, on the whole – since everything started almost as if one were in a fairy tale, with the spirit of the dog reincarnated – one can speak of magical realism. We can almost speak of a Jules Verne-style adventure story. This, perhaps, was what inspired us most.

E. K.: And what’s more, we thought of telling the story almost through the eyes of a child. Of a very young child, like one or two years old, who is observing the life of these dogs. There is something magical about this, at that age you are open to everything and so situations can arise in which the fairytale merges with reality, without any particular division of roles. We tried to maintain this approach throughout the film, even, often, with a completely naïve attitude.

M. P.: You have recently founded the Raumzeit Filmproduktion. What is the situation like today in Austria, when one wants to start such a project?

E. K.: We really wanted to make this film, but since it was to stage a very special story, it was necessary for the Ministry to give us a lot of confidence, precisely because it was something totally new. And then, of course, on the part of those who had to finance the project there were also a lot of misgivings about working with dogs and so on. But fortunately, experimental films are often produced in Austria, and institutions tend to be very brave when it comes to producing something new. And when we got the OK we were of course very happy.

L. P.: But we also needed a lot of money for this film. And secondly, we were new here: she is Austrian, I am German, we studied in Germany and it was our first time here. And so, as in every country, there is a tendency to give priority to national productions. Then we came from abroad, nobody knew us, nobody could vouch for us. So making an important film with our own production company was the most logical choice. Normally there is a basic idea, production companies decide to make it and give you a contract as director, but we wanted at all costs to make this film on our own and feel free to work as we wished. And then of course there is always the problem that when you are too young, no one tends to trust you. But then, fortunately, everything worked out for the best: we got funding from both Austria and Germany, although both countries have different approaches when it comes to producing a new film. In Austria, for example, people think a lot about the probable life of the film within a festival, as the Viennale can be in this case. In Germany, on the other hand, one thinks much more about audience entertainment.

M. P.: Did any feature films or directors inspire you in any way in making your film?

E. K.: With regard to our film, we were particularly inspired by Miguel Gomes. He was a very important figure. We saw Arabian Nights and initially wanted to take that approach in Space Dogs. And we were also inspired by him when we wrote the screenplay. We wanted to keep this particular approach that has something magical about it. Another figure we were inspired by is, for example, Michelangelo Frammartino, as well as many other Italians, including Paolo Sorrentino. But the film I tempi felici verranno presto was also very inspiring to us. As well as Le quattro Volte. In general, we took a lot of inspiration from Italian, Portuguese and Brazilian cinema.

L. P.: All the examples we have given are, however, very political films. And Space Dogs is also, in turn, a political film: with a fable-like story, important issues concerning the society in which we live are discussed and, similarly, in Arabian Nights, the history of contemporary Portugal is told, again in the form of a fairytale.

M. P.: Can you tell us some funny facts that happened to you during the shooting?

L. P.: There are so many of them! (laughs) So, sound is very important in the film and when, nearing the end, the dogs had started to trust us, we put microphones around their necks, even simply to catch their breath or their footsteps. And then, at some point, one of the dogs disappeared, he had gone off into the dark with a very expensive microphone around his neck and we couldn’t find him for quite a while. A similar thing happened with a man to whom we had given a microphone, he met up with a friend of his, they were both also quite drunk and left together.

E. K.: And then, at the beginning of the shooting, as soon as we arrived in the area where the dogs lived, many people on the street asked us what we were doing, why we kept filming those stray dogs and so on. They basically couldn’t understand what we wanted from them. So we would tell them that the little dog Laika was born in that neighbourhood, that we were trying to follow her spirit, and so on. And we also had to tell the police the same thing, because there were many roadblocks on the streets. And I guess we must have looked pretty weird to them. But then one day a woman came and told us: ‘How nice that you are here filming dogs! Laika was born here and maybe her spirit is still here’. (laughs). And then something quite moving also happened to us. For example, when, after spending the summer and winter with the dogs, we had to remove all our equipment and leave, and the dogs accompanied us to the car. And when we turned to look out the back window, they were all still there watching us leave. That was a very difficult moment.

M. P.: One last question: are you currently working on any new projects?

L. P.: We will make a trilogy about dogs. This was the first part. The second one will be about a group of homeless people who live on the streets together with their dogs and again we will focus on how they all live together with their dogs, how they spend their nights on the streets of the city. The film will focus precisely on their relationship.

E. K.: We are also currently writing our first fiction film. We would like to shoot it in Minsk and it is a love story dealing with life and death, the story of a man who falls in love with a girl who wants to attempt suicide. Even in this story, however, there will be a lot of fairytale elements.

Info: the website of the Raumzeit Filmproduktion; the page of Space Dogs on the website of the Austrian Film Commission