By Ali Moosavi.
A welcome fact at San Sebastian was that women film directors were conspicuous by their presence this time. Proxima (dir. Alice Winocour) depicts the challenges that a woman astronaut, who is also a single mother, has to face in order to realize her lifelong ambition of going on a space mission. Sarah (Eva Green) is a French astronaut selected for a joint US-European space mission. She is separated from her German husband (Lars Edinger), who also works for the space agency, and lives with her small daughter. The preparation stages for the space mission take place in Russia. So, Sarah asks her estranged husband to stay with their daughter in Russia while she prepares and goes on the space mission. While in the Russian camp, Sarah has to deal with the aggressive macho behaviour of the US astronaut (Matt Dillon), while bearing the pain of being separated from her daughter. Winocour has managed to make all the characters real and believable. They all have their faults and strengths and unpredictable behaviours. Within a strong narrative, Winocour paints vivid portrayal of an ambitious woman facing the challenges and dilemmas standing in her path to achieving her dream, especially the impact of separation on her daughter and her responsibilities as a single mother. I interviewed Alice Winocour at the 2019 San Sebastian International Film Festival.
You seem to explore very different subjects in your films but somehow you create an intimate atmosphere in all of them. What attracts you to these subjects?
I like to discover worlds. In my first film Augustine (2012) it was the world of hysterics and Charcot (19th-century French Neurologist). Then, in Disorder (2015) it was the world of soldiers coming back from Afghanistan and here in Proxima it was the world of astronauts. I think I love to explore worlds. Then I discovered that what drives me are the very intimate and personal things. There are some people who make autobiographical films. But I think that I need to create an intimacy when I project myself in unknown and distant worlds. Here it was a mother and daughter far away from their normal environment.
Do you see parallels between cinema and space?
There are definitely some similarities between cinema and space. It’s like dreaming of another world. I like it when Matt Dillon in the interview scene says, “if you’re not able to be sitting on a million ton of explosives, you cannot make it as an astronaut”. Like in the beginning of the film where you feel there are tons of explosives under your feet. If you fear a little, then you’re not a good astronaut. It could also be a metaphor for cinema. If you fear, you’re not a good filmmaker.
It’s great to see a movie about space from a woman astronaut’s point of view, specially in the current MeToo environment. Your film touches on women’s issues in general and not specific to one discipline or one location.
I wanted to talk about other environments too. For example, what women are experiencing at work in real life, away from media and cinema, is something very close to me. Also, how to overcome this feeling of guilt resulting from what society thinks as to how you should behave. Like if your daughter is very ill and you have to leave to go to a shooting and leave her alone. When I was in Russia, my daughter was very sick. It’s not that it is not hard for men, of course it is. But, as a woman, you have this feeling that you should be more responsible. I don’t know if shame is the right word, but they are hiding this. A trainer told me that men kept talking about their children and she had trained this woman who was an astronaut and when they reached the end of the training, they found that she had kids that no one knew about. I think it’s time to break the silence. Even to say it is hard, it is like one step. You also feel that you are not alone; that we are all together in this. Although my film is fiction, these women exist, though they are rarely shown with their kids. I received so many touching messages from women astronauts saying that we are so moved that at last a film shows that you can be a good mother and a good astronaut. You see a grandmother with seven or eight missions. And she had to fight because you have to do the same tasks as men and even more to prove you are capable of this. Proxima in Spanish also means “the next one” and as a mother you are also questioning this idea of what you are going to transmit to your child. Is it better to be this perfect mother who likes to stay at home or to say that it is possible to live your dream? I wanted to stay with the little daughter because it’s also her story and the story of her liberating from her mother. We can see at the beginning that she is stuck in a dream. I think that there are many women that are afraid to live their dream because the society made them think that what is best for women is to stay at home with their children. But she doesn’t hesitate when the opportunity arises. The image of the white horses at the very end to me is an image of freedom for the next generation to live their dream.
Proxima has a very strong script. Can you talk about how the script originated? Were you influenced by any specific films or filmmakers? Did you think about the mother-child relationship to start with or the space?
Both. There were two different levels of the script. I was working really hard with all of the strangers because I wanted the film to be real and to be physical because as a filmmaker, I think I’m really fascinated by cinema’s exploration of the relationships to the bodies. It was so exciting for me, as I did in my previous film, Augustine, to film like a Guinea pig, like a woman, like a servant with all the straps, like when we see her with this exoskeleton from the European Space Agency. Also, when we are molding her body like that in a coffin, I was influenced by Cronenberg. I thought about Crash (1996) and all of those type of films. At the same time, I thought the film had to remain really simple. So, in the writing and in the staging I was thinking about a film like Yi Yi / A One and a Two (Edward Yang, 2000). I also love Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972). In those films I really liked the fragility of humanity like very small details. It’s not about making special effects, but to be really close to human. The business of space and the fragility of the relationship between the mother and the daughter is infinitely big and infinitely small. At the same time, it’s something very fragile between the two of them. So, when writing the script, I was always trying to have those aspects in the scene; like the time they are walking in the European Space Agency and see the moon.
How much of your personal life and experience was imbued in the script?
What is great about cinema is that you discover new worlds and also you discover yourself in so many ways. And you are doing it unconsciously. I am also filming my childhood like the little girl experiencing sensations, listening to conversations, spying on little boys through the window and all the other things that I did when I was a child. It is also something about umbilical separation. You know, the script is constructed at different stages of separation, like different stages of the separation of the rocket. We say “mother earth” and in the protocol of the Russian Space Agency it says “umbilical separation” from Earth and from the moon you can see Mother Earth. Now we are going to go to Mars and from there you can’t see the Earth. It is just blackness. So, I think this idea of separation also applies to separation from your own planet. And I think the film is also a celebration of the Earth. It is also not easy to leave Earth because we are earthlings and our bodies are made to live on Earth.
Are there parallels between you and your daughter and the fictional mother/daughter in the film?
As a filmmaker you write with your emotions and what you experience. I asked my daughter if she wanted to play in the film, but she said if I play in a film once, it will be with another director! I think she was right that it was not a good thing and she does not want to be a part of it. In this film I think it’s more like me as a child because it’s also about escaping from the fusional relationship and also about me as a mother. Because I think trying to be a good mother, you can also be a very terrible mother. The feeling of guilt is also not good for children. Then the children have the weight of the lost dream on their shoulders. Also, the father is a very important character. I really wanted the men in the film to be very complex characters. I was very happy to be able to have Matt Dillon, this huge actor to play the role of Mike. Because he could play this complexity and I knew we could love him. We see that he doesn’t know how to behave towards her. At first, he thinks she is not capable of the task and thinks about having sex with her! But then he thinks oh, no, that’s not possible either. He is trying to find how to behave with those kind of women. The father as well, I think he is happy helping the mother. And he is taking care of their little girl as well. We see that the little girl is very happy with the father. And to me it was very important to show that it was also good for the daughter to her father there. In the beginning of the film, the father is not there and, in the end, she has a father too.
There is a sentence in the film that says, “the hard part is when you come back and you realize that life goes on in your absence”.
An astronaut told me this and it’s true in life and true for Proxima too.
Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).