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Cloaked in myth and propaganda, a fascinating lost chapter from the Cold War space race inspired this mischievous documentary hybrid by the young Slovenian director Ziga Virc, a former Student Academy Award nominee. Houston, We Have a Problem! makes the audacious claim that former Yugoslavian dictator Josip Broz Tito developed a clandestine space program, which he then sold wholesale to the Kennedy administration in return for $3 billion in “overseas aid.” When the imported technology failed to deliver its promised results, an angry U.S. applied pressure to Tito, including financial blackmail and threats of military action, culminating in a secret CIA plot that triggered the bloody break-up of post-Communist Yugoslavia.
A polished international co-production backed by HBO Europe, Virc’s debut feature is a richly detailed history lesson which almost feels too grippingly cinematic to be true. And with good reason. The director himself has called his film a “docu-fiction” intended to “tell the symbolic story of the rise and fall of Yugoslavia.” Playfully interweaving real archive footage with wild speculation and artful fabrication, it also addresses a few deeper truths about our uncritical acceptance of documentary conventions. Crucially, above all, it is also great fun. Screened in competition in Karlovy Vary last week, this virtuoso exercise in meta-fictional fakery will orbit further festivals before safely landing on big and small screens.
Featuring a colorful cast of former spies, rocket scientists and historians, Houston, We Have a Problem! has many comic subplots, including the pig that served as Yugoslavia’s first space-age test pilot, splashing down unscathed off the Italian coast only to be ritually roasted and eaten. There also is a heart-tugging human-interest angle in the shape of Ivan Pavic, an elderly engineer forced by Tito to leave his young family behind and work undercover for NASA, his death faked and his funeral staged. Virc includes a tearful reunion between Pavic and the 50-year-old daughter he never met before. All very moving. All completely fictional.
However, Virc and his team are careful to include plenty of fascinating real detail, including a visit to the derelict underground military air base “Object 505,” Yugoslavia’s version of Area 51. A treasure trove of archival news footage includes Tito’s tense state visit to New York in 1963, during which he survived a failed assassination attempt. The scratchy recording of Tito’s follow-up phone call with JFK is a master class in awkward comedy. Kennedy himself was slain in Dallas a few weeks later, a coincidence that the filmmakers cannot resist milking for conspiratorial clues. A later phone call with President Nixon is doctored to suggest that Tricky Dicky once considered bombing Yugoslavia.
Consistently witty and entertaining, even when testing the limits of audience gullibility, Houston, We Have a Problem! is ultimately less a film about Cold War politics than a sly commentary on our current climate of internet myth-making and “post-truth” public figures like Donald Trump. The presence of Slovenian radical philosopher Slavoj Zizek (A Pervert’s Guide to Cinema) as a kind of clownish chorus figure serves as an early warning of Virc’s implied conclusion that comforting fiction is often more appealing than complex fact. “Even if it didn’t happen, it’s true,” Zizek blusters. “That’s the crucial message.”
Venue: Karlovy Vary International Film Festival
Production companies: Studio Virc, Nukleus Film, Sutor Kolonko
Director: Ziga Virc
Screenwriters: Ziga Virc, Bostjan Virc
Cinematographer: Andrej Virc
Editor: Vladimir Gojun
Producer: Bostjan Virc
Sale company: CAT&Docs, Paris
Not rated, 88 minutes
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