Space Dogs


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Space Dogs
"As in much Russian science fiction, the tone here is darker and yet vastly more alert to the wonders of the universe than is usual in the Western equivalent." | Photo: courtesy of Icarus Films

We all know the story of Laika... don't we? She was the first dog in space. For a long time the story was that she had returned to Earth in good health, and it's curious how many people still believe that. Elsa Kremser and Levin Peter's documentary will disabuse you of that notion straight away. All that returned, it contends, was her ghost - and with it the notion that nothing is as tough and courageous as a Moscow street dog.

Who are these dogs? Much of the film is dedicated to finding out. Where other documentaries have waxed lyrical about Laika's heroism, this one concerns itself with painting a more realistic portrait of the kind of life she would have led before being selected for her groundbreaking mission. It's not easy viewing. In early scenes, the dogs we follow seem much like any others, if a little thinner. They move confidently among their human neighbours, patrolling the streets of the city alone or in small packs. By night, a group of them seem to delight in setting off a car alarm, clustering around the noisy vehicle in an almost reverential way. We see the affection that passes between them, the teamwork that helps them get by day to day.

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The film takes a turn with the brutal killing of a fluffy tortoiseshell house cat, doubtless someone's much loved companion. Is it a source of food? That's unclear, beyond the fact that the dog who killed it guards it fiercely from a former friend. Now we start to see the dominance rituals among the dogs - actual fights sometimes. More often, growling and demands for submission, with the top dogs making examples of those who do not immediately obey to send a message to the others. It's easy to see parallels here with the regime that made so much of them.

Archive footage presents the story of the space dogs who, after Laika, were too numerous to name. The narration is scant; we pick up plenty through observation. Rows and rows of street dogs in cages, gradually being tamed. Dogs jostling for access to apparently identical bowls of food, immediately deciding that those the first dogs have chosen must be better than the others. We learn how, after their flights, the dogs went through 'wedding' ceremonies, producing puppies which could be gifted to celebrities and act as 'proof' that space travel wasn't harmful. It's a very traditional Russian way of looking at things: if you can still reproduce, nothing can be seriously wrong.

The scene with the cat isn't the only distressing one here, as the film moves on to look at how feral dogs are treated in the country today. There's also a brief hop across the ocean to reflect on the US space programme and a chimpanzee astronaut known only as Number 65, snatched from the forests of Cameroon and hurled 150 million kilometres away from the surface of the Earth. He returned, but in some ways his fate is more disturbing than that of Laika.

The later adventures of space animals are left out of this story, with the exception of the tale of two 'turtles' (or tortoises - the Russian word is the same) which carries its own existential weight. As in much Russian science fiction, the tone here is darker and yet vastly more alert to the wonders of the universe than is usual in the Western equivalent. If Space Chimps didn't make you want to scream the first time you watched it, it will now.

Without a conventional narrative structure for much of its running time, Space Dogs will undoubtedly alienate some viewers. It relies on immersive photography and small, sharp observations about canine life to keep its audience engaged. It may not provide as many hard facts about the lives of these pioneers as many are hoping for, but, more that any other previous work, it helps us to imagine Laika as an individual with her own values and concerns, and helps us understand the cost of reaching for the stars.

Reviewed on: 14 Sep 2020
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According to myth, Laika, the first dog sent to space, returned to earth as a ghost that has roamed Moscow since... this film is told from the perspective of her descendants, two street dogs in today's city.

Director: Elsa Kremser, Levin Peter

Writer: Elsa Kremser, Levin Peter

Starring: Aleksey Serebryakov, Aleksey Serebryakov

Year: 2019

Runtime: 91 minutes

Country: Austria, Germany


Black Nights 2019

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