Space Dogs, behind the scenes: «This is how we became part of the Russian stray dogs pack»
On November 3rd, 1957, Laika was the first living being sent into orbit by the Soviets. In an official statement, Oleg Gazenko, the scientist in charge of the project to conquer the space against the United States, said she was already dead within five hours of the launch. After 162 days the capsule exploded and returned to the earth's atmosphere. Two directors got now on the tracks of the ashes of that "space dog" and her heirs: Elsa Kremser and Levin Peter, taking their cue from the fact that Laika was actually a stray of Moscow and starting from a legend that says she is back to Earth like a ghost. Filmed on the outskirts of the Russian capital, "Space Dogs" will be presented for the first time in Italy at the Turin Film Festival on November 28th and we were able to see it in preview. According to a narrator, with images also taken from the Soviet archives and in the absence of any moral judgment, the viewer is completely captured by a view of the world that is as non-anthropocentric as possible and turned to the visual level of the pack.
How did the idea come about?
Levin Peter: «It occurred to us four, five years ago. It was just a talk between us, We said to ourselves: "Imagine how a film could be where dogs are the real protagonists". Then we realized that it could really become a movie product and we started research. Several ideas came to our mind to support the making off about a documentary filmed from the perspective of dogs and at a certain point we thought about the space operations of the Soviets, looking at Google for news about Laika and the other dogs and animals that had been used. We then did more extensive research and discovered that they had experimented with strays that lived in the streets of Moscow. I remember perfectly that it was our "wow" moment: when you realize that you have found the key to tell the story you had imagined. And our is inspired by the life of an "individual": a little dog that lived on the streets and then ended up in the space for the propaganda of the Russians».
Elsa Kremner: «The plot is intertwined with my personal life from which the most profound inspiration came. My parents were breeders of Lhasa Apso (Tibetan breed). I was born among the dogs, I was used to being surrounded by them and I grew up on the same level from the point of view of how they observe reality: I experimented by myself the height from which they see the world since I was a child. Living with the dogs helped me a lot: I could experiment life with strays of Moscow like I used to, like when I was a child among the dogs of my family. Being with them without judgment, without any pre-set approach according to rules and human dictates but really with that sense of wanting to see and then show the world from their own perspective. Eyes of dogs look at the world with such purity».
How was your relationship with dogs before the movie and how and if it changed after shooting Space Dogs?
Levin Peter: «Unlike Elsa, I never had a dog nor did I ever get into a situation of familiarity with dogs before this film. Indeed, to be honest I was very afraid of them since I was a child and I had to overcome this terror to work with them. But I have to say that stray dogs have always scared me less than when I meet dogs on leashes. Maybe it's just because I think: "What will the owner do? Will he be able to control it? ”And I'm still afraid of this. Yet I never felt this feeling with free dogs and this is because their language is much easier for me to understand than dogs with owners: I still don't know how to "read" them. It took a while to get in touch with the strays for me but it was really special to be able to observe them. I was always one step behind the others but in the end I realized what the big difference was: communication with dogs on a leash is complex, mediated by the owner. A free dog turns directly to you and you do the same».
Elsa Kremser: «My concept of dog has changed profoundly after months of work in Moscow, after meeting so many strays and appreciating how different they are from one another and then when we were shooting the film and living with them even more. For me it is really strange to see dogs on a leash now and I also see my past in a different way. I think of my parents who brought dogs to exhibitions or how normal it seems to us that ours, those who live in Western homes above all, think that they should be educated according to anthropocentric social rules. Now I understand and I know that dogs life is quite different rom our idea. Strays choose what they want, they do not have masters, they have their rules and live a life in full freedom with all that it obviously entails. I now perceive the dogs on a leash as oppressed. But I don't want to be misunderstood: I don't mean all of them obviously and I don't generalize. I only speak of my intimate perception in respect of ethology and I am absolutely attentive and in favor of healthy relationships between domestic dogs and men that work well according to the social rules that I understand must be respected».
How did you find and “choose” the dogs?
Elsa Kremser - «It was a long search, it lasted several weeks. We've been around a long time in the Moscow suburbs. We were looking for a pack that could be pro-active, that spontaneously came in contact with us but was not entirely accustomed to the fixed presence of human beings. It all happened by chance. We were returning home, it was late, we were tired and all of a sudden a dog crossed the street. We all jumped out the cars to follow him and then he was not part of the group that we had chosen but he brought us to them. So we arrived in front of the bar that often is showed in the film and the dogs were there and we understood that it was the right pack on the right set: the suburban area, the subway within walking distance, people passing, a perfect mix of various humanity and dogs. The male protagonist of the documentary was only six months old at the time. He had a gentle and cute character and I told myself that we should follow him who was going to have a whole life ahead full of experiences and we would tell it through his eyes».
Levin Peter - «Yes, he would have been our "hero". We said it: he is the protagonist, there will be many things in his life and we will be next him. From that moment another six months have passed since we then started shooting which lasted other three months. A year and a half passed by starting from the research to the end of the film that now allow us to tell the story of the strays in Moscow».
What kind of relationship you had with strays and what kind of feelings were involved living with the pack?
Elsa Kremser - «We were five people and each of us lived his professional and personal experience. We were a bunch of humans included in a pack of four dogs mainly. Some of us had a more distant emotional approach and others were particularly emotionally involved. The most difficult moment was when we left. With an actor you greet each other, you can say goodbye using words and you know the other one understands what you say. You can't do it with a dog. Saying goodbye to a dog is difficult. It’s hard to think that you will not come back and at the same time you know that they were used to us. But the dogs of "our" pack are still all there: they are fine, they live in their environment».
Levin Peter - «Our relationship with strays, as I lived it, was on different levels: we spent so much time together, we slept with them and we followed them and waited for them and the dogs did the same things with us. From another point of view, however, we were there to do our job: there was money invested and a timetable to respect and above all we wanted them to emerge as the heroes of our story. We had long waiting times: when dogs are sleeping they do it for hours and sometimes we wanted to say: "Come on, do something!" (Laughs, n.d.r.). But making a documentary is a challenge, it takes patience and a strong balance between emotion and professionalism: you want to protect them, for example, but at the same time you would like them to act as if we weren't there and this obviously involves the risks that life puts in front of them. We understood, however, at some point that the more we were nervous the more they made us understand clearly that it was not what they wanted from us. Instead if there was relax in the group of humans they showed a great desire to share experiences with us».
Elsa Kremser - «It is true. If we were open-minded, calm, we could see them coming closer and have a strong will to be with us and show us their world. "Our plans are not more important than theirs" we said to each others and this was a turning point. Dogs are challenging, they challenge our emotions. We went from the tension of looking for them, during the preparation of the film, to living them deeply following their rhythms and gaining their trust. So many times, in the end, they where the ones waiting for us to guide us and even entertain us. I remember an episode: the cameraman had to stop shooting for a problem and they stopped to wait for him».
The most discussed scene is the killing of a cat made by the dogs. But why do you think people get mad about what is a natural event and not upon the many violence shown in the film perpetrated by men on animals?
Levin Peter - «Yes, the "cat scene" caused quite a sensation and we didn't even expect it. I think it's because it shows a brutality that is not easy to be encountered in everyday life. But this is also the reason why cinema exists: to show what you don't normally see. What I understood, at least until now, is that the discussion that follows is very rich and interesting and for me this is the reason why our work exists. I understand that sometimes people reach a maximum point of tolerance in what they see and then get over, but a human being cannot judge what a dog does according to our ethics that for other things, in fact, is not put practically. Many, in reality, understand the naturalness of the scene and know that they cannot "attack" a dog and therefore judge us directors for having filmed and not intervened. We decided to follow the strays in their environment, like "wild" animals and it would have been absurd not to show their life in full. When we look at and discuss on that scene the point is that we are actually talking about human morality: but this is our ethics, certainly not that of the dog».
Elsa Kremser - «It is one of the most natural scenes in the film. It endures everything that is done by human beings, it leaves out a context made of a human-sized reality composed of machines, traffic, night clubs, degraded suburbs because it is what we see constantly in any city but then if something happens to an animal that we consider "domestic" seems wrong. But this is nature and the murderous instinct is normal for an animal: it is not a taboo for dogs. As directors we have shown this that is evidently perceived as "too much" for people who prefer not to look at reality. But we certainly didn't want to show "cute" animals, dressed in costume as often on YouTube happens, deprived of their personality. Another important thing for us was to show, instead, what precisely men do to animals and which is clearly seen in the film».
There are other very "powerful" scenes indeed. One in particular emerges and highlights the relationship between man and stray dog in a scenario of misery and desolation in which both species live...
Levin Peter - «It is the moment when a homeless man rummages through the garbage and also searches for food for the dogs. It is a very important scene. It is not the only one who has this very intense and respectful relationship with strays in that area, there were others who fed and talked to them. They are people who live in the streets or others who work on the premises: night people we can say. They really have a great empathic ability to get in touch with dogs. That meeting we have resumed is the only scene in the film where a man talks to a dog. We met that homeless and we also talked to each other and a relationship was born between us: he gave us the consent to show a moment for us very representative of the strength of a relationship as unique as that between dog and human. The truth of a relationship between "strays" of two different species that meet, share time together and then everyone follows his own path».
Elsa Kremser - «This type of relationship has so involved us and struck us that we are now thinking of a second part of our documentary but which no longer has to do with the story of Laika but which tells the life of a homeless person and a stray who live together with a "pack" of people and dogs».
What do you hope people will consider after watching your film?
Levin Peter - «I hope that people like me, who have not had relations with dogs, take inspiration. That it would be a first time also for them, that they really manage to "get down" to the dogs level: that means to go deep into the world of animals. Decided to shoot with the cameras at their height for a movie to watch on the big screen allows the viewer, in 90 minutes, to live a unique experience. The cinematographic technique we used helped us to offer a new vision and we hope that many people will let themselves go into the rhythm of dogs, being wrapped in their perception of time».
Elsa Kremser - «I hope that viewers change their opinion on animals and understand deeply the importance of connecting with animals. I hope also that when they meet dogs in their daily life they think about them as individuals with their own personalities, which have a life of their own and that no longer react as if they were in front of a toy. We met and met people who, after seeing our film, told us that they didn't even have the idea that there were strays in the world but just “pets”».
The interview was translated from Italian (here a summary on Cani&Umani) and was published on Il Secolo XIX