The Reality Behind the Reality

in 26th Festival of East European Cinema, Cottbus

by Nachum Mochiach

The film ends (and this is not a spoiler!) with a statement by Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek, who says: Even if it didn’t happen, it’s true. And before that, Ivan Pavic, an allegedly old and ill Yugoslavian space programme engineer in a wheelchair, says after visiting Marshal Tito’s grave: Fuck you Tito! According to the film, Pavic was forced to leave Yugoslavia back in the 1960s and hide in America; he was allowed back to his homeland just recently to reunite with his daughter, whom he never met, long after his wife had passed away during his time in exile.

This is just a glimpse of the excellent docufiction-mockumentary Houston, We Have a Problem! (Houston, imamo problem!), directed by Slovene Žiga Virc. The film was the only documentary to take part in the main competition of the 26 th FilmFestival Cottbus that concentrates on Eastern European films.

Houston, We Have a Problem! digs into the myth of the (newly declassified information that was the trigger for making this film) multi-billion- dollar deal of the United States purchasing, in the early 1960s, Yugoslavia’s exclusive space programme. The narrative reveals that during the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, a third player emerged in the field all of a sudden. Yugoslavia, headed by Marshall Josip Broz Tito, secretly developed what seemed to be a modern, advanced and progressive space programme. Tito was smart enough to sell it to John F. Kennedy’s administration for $2.5 billion (the film estimates that this would today be the equivalent of $50 billion).

The Americans were eager to learn the technology of the new Yugoslavian space programme in order to use it for their plans to land on the moon. But while the financial aid from the US helped Yugoslavia’s failed economy recover, unfortunately the technology sold to the Americans was really disappointing and gave poor results for NASA’s future space plans.

The American administration felt like they had been cheated – in their eyes probably as part of the Cold War’s brain and power games – and asked for revenge. They started to press Belgrade and to blackmail the Yugoslavian regime financially. Finally, according to the film of course, the CIA promoted a scam that resulted in the breakup of Yugoslavia. Could you believe that?

With a healthy sense of humour and a lot of irony, brilliantly using archival black- and-white newsreel footage, Virc blends real events with lies, facts with conspiracy theories and manipulation, and sarcastically suggests that we, the audience, decide what is true and what is not.

This co-production between Slovenia, Croatia and Germany looks in the beginning reliable, historical and prone to escapism, until Virc feeds you with pieces of information that sound really ridiculous; then you begin to suspect the whole thing. The last straw for me was when the film showed a line of new Yugoslavian cars that were being shipped to the US for the purpose of reconciling and compensating the Americans for the false space programme. Come on! It was the golden age of Detroit’s automobile industry, and the last thing that America needed at that time was a shipment of European-Soviet model cars.

In order to make his point, and maybe to make the viewers more confused, the director (and his brother Boštjan, who co-wrote the screenplay) adds to the film also the point of view of historian Roger McMillan and, as mentioned above, from Žižek who wonders what truth is.

Actually, the film portrays in a way an alternative history to what really happened, but coming to think of it – perhaps it tells the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Edited by Birgit Beumers