The mysterious and much talked-about docu-fiction feature Houston, We Have A Problem!, directed by Žiga Virc, premiered on April 16th 2016, as a part of the Viewpoints section of the Tribeca Film Festival in New York; the premiere screening was sold out in minutes. A week ago, on April 25th 2016, the film also had its sold-out premiere on domestic soil in Slovenia; everywhere, it was met with praise from both the audience and the critics – and with many questions from both.
It is now obvious that Žiga Virc, the young and talented Slovenian director, managed to create a film that lives up to the hype and expectation that preceded the film for years – the promotional trailer that announced its production was made years ago, in 2012. Even then, with basically nothing actually made, the topic of the film received national and international attention. The timing for the announcement was basically perfect. It was immediately clear that one of the people in the focus of the documentary would be Josip Broz Tito, just when the younger generation of Slovenia – following the start of the recession – started to look back, at the ‘better’ times in the countries of the then-powerful Yugoslavia, and at him, the historical figure, as the leader who brought them about. Even among the older generations that lived under his rule, many still feel Yugo-nostalgic and are happy to delve into the tales of the ‘good old days’. So part of the film’s pull can undeniably be credited to curiosity and the complex residual/newly formed emotion for the ex-Yugoslavian ex-leader. But not only Tito, a myriad of Cold War participants, headed by the U.S. President John F. Kennedy, would obviously have to be a part of the story! Then, adding to that, the mere idea of Yugoslavia having a space programme! It seems both far-fetched and yet – weirdly – not impossible. Newly uncovered records were supposed to be a part of the deal! And then the further notion that Yugoslavia sold it to the USA, who used it for their space success … It was attention-gripping, as much as it sounded like a complete hoax. And we all could not wait to see where this would go.
In a classic Virc-worthy twist, what it first sounded like, what it looked like it would become, went somewhere quite different. Not to mention that Slavoj Žižek, the famous Slovenian philosopher, found his way into the mix, adding yet another dimension to the story – and, naturally, the confusion. For whatever we thought we would watch, brought about even more questions – about what is and is not real, and about how often we’ve been led to believe in carefully structured half-truths and lies. It presents us with yet another conspiracy theory – while making us question conspiracy theories in general. This is a film which found its goal in making us question our own reality – and it manages to do so brilliantly.
In an interview, Žiga Virc, who also co-wrote this film with his uncle, Boštjan Virc (who is also one of the film’s producers) himself stated that he was thrilled with the reactions from viewers, whom he managed to – already after the first screening – start a critical dialogue with, with the viewers questioning the historical accuracy of the film and asking whether it was a construct of yet another conspiracy theory. Virc believes that by receiving that response, he has achieved what he intended to as an author.
The film, a docu-fiction feature, turned out to be an intelligent string of real and fake historical footage and documentation, which is inter-connected with a faux- (or is it?) story of a ex-Yugoslavian scientist, who was forced by his government to fake his own death before leaving for USA, then worked with NASA on the space programme. At the beginning of the film, he travels back to his home territory, and as the film progresses, returns to all the locations that he used to work at, while accompanied by his daughter that he never knew he had. His story becomes the backbone of the film, with him as one of the main narrators – he is joined by an American historian, a retired Yugoslav People’s Army general, Slavoj Žižek, and – through historical recordings – Tito himself.
The scope and the resources of the film are truly rich – it was filmed on 3 continents and in 8 countries – even with a stopover in Morocco, no less. Even if some of the material is fictitious, it also includes a lot of legitimate historical sources. It is no wonder that the film needed but also successfully managed to draw in ‘outside’ help. It saw the light of day as a co-production of Slovenia, Croatia, Germany, Czech Republic, Qatar and HBO Europe.
To tell you more about the twists and turns of the plot would be counter-effective, since this is a film that you really SHOULD watch. Whether you are Slovenian, Croatian (or in any way, ex-Yugoslavian), British, American, Japanese or South Korean, this is a film that will shed some light on the past events (but also equally convolute them), and with perpetually present wit and humour, it will make you re-think both past and present ‘truths’. After all, even the title of the film itself is based on a misquote. In Apollo 13 (Ron Howard, 1995), Tom Hanks’ character actually stated “… Ah, Houston, we’ve had a problem.” There you go.
Written by Sanja Struna
All photos © Houston, We Have a Problem!