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“Proxima” director Alice Winocour – A different vision of space

Alice Winocour in conversation with Susanne Burg

The countdown is on: Sarah (Eva Green) and Stella (Zélie Boulant-Lemesle) can only say goodbye through a thick pane of glass. (Koch Films )
Eva Green has to say goodbye to her daughter and “Mother Earth” in “Proxima”. “I thought it was poetic,” says director Alice Winocour. (Koch Films )

For the space film “Proxima”, Alice Winocour researched hard-to-reach military terrain. In an interview, she talks about what she learned and why it was easier for Eva Green to sit in a centrifuge than to play a mother.

Susanne Burg: Gradually, the cinemas are reopening. One of the first films shown is the space film “Proxima”: Eva Green plays the young astronaut Sarah, who wants to be the first woman to explore Mars. When she is selected for the one-year Proxima space mission, she begins a hard workout on Earth.

The film shows them preparing for their departure into space, at press conferences, athletic stress tests, in a centrifuge and in underwater simulations. There is only one thing she can’t train: saying goodbye to her daughter Stella.

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The French Alice Winocour wrote and directed the screenplay. Why did you choose an astronaut to ask the question of the compatibility between work and family?

Alice Winocour: I found it interesting to imagine astronauts leaving the planet and being separated from Mother Earth. I found it poetic that there is a mother who has to separate from her daughter and at the same time from Mother Earth. There was a parallel for me.

Portrait of Alice Winocour, 2019. (imago / Future Image / C.Niehaus)In conversation: the filmmaker Alice Winocour. (imago / Future Image / C.Niehaus)

In addition, when a rocket is launched and leaves Earth, it really says: “Umbilical separation”,” i.e. separation of the umbilical cord. This is stated, among other things, in the Russian protocol. This is a very real metaphor.

Rivalry between astrophysicists and astronauts

castle: In the film, it’s hard for the mother, Sarah, to separate from her daughter Stella and be far away. For Sarah, it is also difficult that her daughter is getting bigger and more independent and she is not there. You can hardly be further away from a child than in space. How much did you want to play with the idea of proximity and distance?

Winocour: I was really obsessed with the idea from writing to editing. I wanted to juxtapose the infinitely small with the infinitely large. On the one hand, the fragile relationship between mother and daughter, which is a love story, the little things when the daughter is studying for her math test and the mother can’t be there.

On the other hand, the galaxy and the planets. It can also be found in the title “Proxima”. Nearest. Proxima Centauri is the neighboring star, but light years distant. In Spanish it is also called “the next”. Then there was also the idea of transmission and passing on, i.e. the question of what you pass on to your daughter.

castle: This is also associated with an exploration of distance and closeness, of giving and letting go – which also makes up a large part of parenthood.

Winocour: Yes, this also means that the father is allowed into the relationship. We see Lars Eidinger, who plays the father, as he hardly knows his daughter at the beginning and pays little attention to her. He is an astrophysicist and is more interested in Venus and Mars.

Lars Eidinger looks up at the sky with reddened eyes while a child sits on his shoulders. (Koch Films)Touched look upwards: Lars Eidinger plays Eva Green’s husband in “Proxima”. (Koch Films)

I was inspired by a real astrophysicist from France who told me about the rivalry between astrophysicists and astronauts. This is reflected in the relationship with Sarah.

As a mother, sometimes you want to keep control of your child and you are afraid to give it up. I tell in the film that the father does it differently, but he does it well. I could identify well with Sarah when I was writing, because I am also a mother. But I could also understand Stella. She frees herself from her mother.

Ten percent of women among astronauts

castle: There’s one story between Sarah and Stella, but then there’s Sarah’s work. She takes up a large part of the film. Sarah is one of the few female astronauts in the industry. When she is introduced to her male teammates, one makes a rather chauvinistic remark and says: French women are supposed to be good cooks. They also did a lot of research. What did you learn? How much chauvinism and sexism is there in the industry?

Winocour: My experience has been that astronauts don’t complain, especially women don’t. It took me a long time to hear about sexist remarks.

Eva Green and Matt Dillon discussed at a table. (Koch Films)Exchange of blows: Eva Green and Matt Dillon in the film “Proxima” (Koch Films)

The competition in the industry is huge and the self-censorship is great among women. Only ten percent of astronauts are women. This is not because they are not so good, they often do not dare to do so.

Women still feel like they have to choose between their career and their child, especially in these competitive jobs. In German, there is the term “raven mother”, mothers who leave their child behind. I think that’s a pretty brutal picture.

Female astronauts don’t want to hide their femininity

castle: In the film you show Sarah’s colleagues. One has two children and obviously has no problem leaving them behind and flying into space.

Winocour: A trainer at ESA in Cologne told me that the men usually immediately showed her photos of their children and told her how proud they were. In the case of a woman, it took half a year for the trainer to even learn that she had children. I think it’s still hard for women to take care of the family. They have the feeling that they have to prove that they can also survive in such fields of work.

I was interested in this silence. That’s why I also added family photos of real female astronauts to the credits. I talked to many female astronauts and then asked them if they could give me photos of themselves and their children. Because you never see such photos. They are hidden.

Eva Green stands in astronaut gear in a lake and smiles at the camera (Koch Films)Preparing for the farewell: Eva Green in the film “Proxima” (Koch Films)

I’m interested in stories that haven’t been told yet, topics that women often don’t talk about. This also includes the topic of menstruation. We are told: Take care, but don’t talk about it. I think it’s time for cinema to address these questions, because it’s a big part of female life.

castle: They’ve also incorporated a lot of details into the film about what it means to go into space. Because you mention menstruating: One question Sarah has to answer is whether she wants to take tampons with her into space or whether she wants to suppress her days with medication. How important were all these details to you?

Winocour: I think you understand a lot in the details. Many women have to fight for their femininity in space. Long hair, for example, is very impractical and so is menstruation. I thought it was nice that many women didn’t want to lock away their feminine side.

And yes, when I write, such details are important to me. That was already the case with “Mustang”, the film I wrote together with Deniz Gamze Ergüven. We talked a lot with doctors in Turkey. That is important. Because the reality is sometimes worse than you can imagine. Sometimes, on the other hand, you have to come up with something realistic, because the realiThat is not credible.

Numerous on-site research

castle: In “Proxima” you can also see that you have gained access to the European Space Agency (ESA). How did you research there and how accessible were the places?

Winocour: It was hard work to get the appropriate permits. At first they thought I was a journalist and would come two or three times. But I spent a lot of time at ESA in Cologne meeting astronauts and their trainers.

I also traveled with them to Star City, where the Russian training center is. With their help, I also got to the military bases, to which it is really difficult to get access. In Kazakhstan I saw a rocket launch. I had to research all this before I started writing to see if it was all feasible at all, because I couldn’t build a set.

We really had to shoot on location. Documentaries have already been made on the grounds of ESA and Star City, but never a feature film. We came with the actors. It was new to the people working there, but they understood that I wanted to show the real life of astronauts – and they supported us.

Hard training

castle: Eva Green plays Sarah, who has this emotional side of being separated from her daughter. But there is also the physical side of the work, the tremendously hard training. They show how she trains, harder than their male counterparts. How did you work with Eva Green on these two sides of the character?

Winocour: It was a long process. We met many astronauts in Cologne. Eva has trained with Russian coaches. They treated her like a real astronaut. They were angry when she didn’t manage something and yelled at her. It was funny because for her she wasn’t Eva Green, but any astronaut. She also worked a lot on her body to get all the muscles she had seen in the other astronauts.

Eva Green sits in a complex technical apparatus and trains for the flight into space. (Koch Films)Hard training: Eva Green in “Proxima”. (Koch Films)

For the scenes in the centrifuge and in the pool, we worked with special effects, because that’s too hard for the body. You really have to be an astronaut for that. Eva Green has never complained about this physical work. But it was hard for her to play the mother. She has no children. She always felt that she was not credible. Being in a centrifuge was easy, but holding her daughter’s hand at the farewell was hard. But it is also the way of the character that she becomes very human in the end.

Image of space shaped by US cinema

castle: We talked about the many details, the view of the work, so the very grounded appearance of the film. That’s a very different approach than many U.S. space movies, which are often action movies in space. To what extent was this also a conscious alternative to such films by you?

Winocour: The Americans now have a monopoly on how space is portrayed in the film. Space is American for us through cinema. But there are many other space agencies. EsA is a very large one, as is the Russian one. I wanted to show a different vision of space.

In the American view, space is dangerous and full of violence, with no room for fragility. I experienced it very differently, even with American astronauts. To be them is to experience how fragile and vulnerable the human body is.

I wanted to show that, also from the woman’s point of view. It’s the opposite of what I see in American movies.

Arjun Sethi
Passionate guitarist, gamer and writer. Lives for the perfect review, and scrapes texts until they are razor-sharp.


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