“Houston, We Have a Problem!” has had audiences across the world wondering what the hell they have just seen, as the ‘docu-fiction’ audaciously and masterfully develops the myth of the Yugoslavian space programme that was sold to the Yankees.
Premiering at the trendy Tribeca Film Festival in spring, continuing its tour at the lush Karlovy Vary festival in the Czech Republic and screening in November at the prestigious International Documentary Festival in Amsterdam (IDFA), the film was the Slovenian choise for this year’s Academy Awards, which could have earned the young director Žiga Virc his second Oscar nomination.
The film combines archive and present-day footage to make a convincing claim that Yugoslav strongman Josip Broz Tito sold the homegrown domestic space programme to President John F. Kennedy, at the time under pressure to beat the Russkies in the space race, for a hefty sum of $3bn masked as development aid.
The space programme was delivered to the US by crossing the Atlantic after being discharged from Tito’s personal sea flotilla during a cover-up visit to the unsuspecting Moroccan king. But its poor state infuriated JFK and all the successive American presidents since, prompting a US campaign of blackmail and intimidation demanding the money back, which Tito intricately maneuvered up until his death, culminating in a CIA-facilitated violent Bill Clinton-approved collapse of Yugoslavia.
Captivating historic geopolitical vicissitudes and accounts of the wrestling of larger-than-life statesmen are generously seasoned with humorous details, which, among others, include a first piglet in space, countless eccentricities by Tito such as smoking Cuban cigars in Richard Nixon’s face, or an ingenious marketing of Yugoslavian automotive achievement the Yugo in the US.
But it is impossible to write about “Houston” without revealing the main fact about the film: it is fake. The docu-fiction intertwines actual archival footage, fabricated images, and acted testimonies of “actual participants” of the events on both the US and the Yugoslavian side to create a film that will leave most of the unsuspecting audience believing that they might be seeing the real deal.
Docu-fiction – or hybrid documentaries, or mockumentaries – are not a new genre, especially on such fruitful subjects as global conspiracies: the conspiracy theory about how the moon landing was fake prompted such notable films as “Dark Side of the Moon” or “Operation Avalanche” (the latter released in 2016).
Neither are new the attempts to deconstruct and examine the machinery of totalitarian imagery and the myths behind them, such as the now classic Romanian “The Great Communist Bank Robbery” by Aleku Solomon and “The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu” by Andrei Ujica.
But none of those films have the reached the polished appeal of the international co-production backed by HBO Europe that “Houston” has. The constructed archival images are spotless, the scripted present-day melodramatic storyline of a rocket scientist returning home is entertaining, the (overly) dramatic score is well-composed, and the actual archival footage cleverly and strategically placed throughout the film to support its conspiratorial premise is bedazzling.
So even if you don’t fall for the myth, you will have a fun time trying to tell the truth from fiction, wondering what on earth was the Apollo team actually doing in Yugoslavia, or how the film researchers got their hands (or managed to reconstruct) a Tito-Kennedy phone conversation full of tongue-in-cheek causticities.
There’s also a dose of intellectual stimulation on the subject through the interventions of the celebrity Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek, whose discourse on the nature of myth, conspiracy theories, and the feasibility of reality vis-a-vis media and ideological constructs punctuates the acts of “Houston”.
But what makes the carefree historical trickery of “Houston” oh-so-timely and important, cutting right into the present Zeitgeist, is that it was released in the year when “post-truth” went mainstream and was the Oxford Dictionaries’ “Word of the Year”. The year when the most famous Slovenian will no longer be an eccentric philosopher, but the First Lady-to-be Melania Trump. The year of an epidemic of fake news and troll farms, the steep devaluation of facts and the grave crisis of the press and journalism in general.
This Slovenian docu-fiction crafts an original way of recycling the myths of the former Yugoslavia, but it also invites you to examine the myth of America, the grotesque politics of which has recently worried people around the globe. And, willingly or not, it shows how easily convincing and appealing well-contructed imagery of the past and the present can tell even the most unbelievable story.
“Houston, we have a problem” can be seen on HBO Europe in available territories.