'We experienced the pandemic on Earth and they were experiencing it in orbit'

Our latest Guardian documentary is an evocative meditation on isolation and human fragility. It pieces together glimpses of the astronaut Jessica Meir’s seven-month mission on the International Space Station (Expedition 62, from September 2019-April 2020), from the euphoria of her first spacewalk to the surprise of witnessing the global pandemic unfold on Earth. We spoke with the film-makers Alina Manolache and Vladimir Potop about the film.

Covid from space: the humans furthest from the pandemic – video

We’ve all had to learn new ways of working this year and it’s certainly been an unusual time for film-makers. You collaborated on this film together at a distance. What was that like?

Alina: We have known each other since childhood and always wanted to make a film together. But with 2,547km (1,583 miles) between us (I live in Bucharest and Vlad in London), different schedules and different lifestyles, it seemed complicated. When the international Covid-19 spring quarantine arrived, we saw the opportunity to sync our calendars and to gather our forces towards a co-authored project.

Filmmakers Alina Manolache and Vladimir Potop explain how they made the new Guardian documentary 2020: a Covid space odyssey

Alina Manolache and Vladimir Potop making the documentary. Photograph: Alina Manolache and Vladimir Potop

It is a very creative response to the pandemic. What inspired you to make a film about space?

Alina: We were interested in the idea of isolation. In March 2020, we found ourselves locked inside, like everyone else. We were experiencing a form of isolation in our homes and we felt somehow closer to astronauts because they too were exposed to living in a closed space for a long time. In that sense, we felt that people on Earth and astronauts were somehow in the same position at that moment in time – though of course astronauts were already trained physically and psychologically to live in confinement, while for us the feeling was unfamiliar. So the film was a way to understand their world and, at the same time, ours.

Vladimir: When I was little I had a poster of the Mir Station, a predecessor to the International Space Station (ISS), on my bedroom wall. It was the first image I saw waking up in the morning for many years. So making a film about life on the ISS was like being back daydreaming in my childhood room. We viewed all kinds of footage, old and new, everything that we could find about life on the ISS. We made a sort of pre-selection and “character casting” while we were learning about different crews that were on the space station in its 20 years of activity. Like the poster on the wall, I’ve pretty much lived inside the film while we were working on it.

Jessica Meir and crewmates return safely from the space station in April 2020.

Jessica Meir and crewmates return safely from the space station in April 2020.

Photograph: NASA/ZUMA Wire/REX/Shutterstock

What attracted you to Meir’s story in particular?

Alina: We discussed it a lot and finally chose to focus on Meir and her crewmates (Andrew Morgan and Oleg Skripochka) because it was like a mirror – they were physically in space while we were in front of our monitors making the film. We experienced the global pandemic on Earth and they were experiencing it at the exact same time, in orbit. The story developed almost live, in front of our eyes. That enhanced our curiosity and enthusiasm for the project, even if we were working remotely and it was sometimes hard to stay focused and to find energy for the project in the same moments. Actually, our mood while working on the film reflects in how the film flows, its structure allows you to dream, to go into your thoughts. The film becomes a meditation on the fragility of human presence in a much bigger context.

Vladimir: We wanted to create a sensorial experience that is timeless to us like space itself, revealing itself in the last minutes of the film – taking Jessica and the audience by surprise in a similar way this whole year took us by surprise.

The International Space Station above the Atlantic Ocean.

The International Space Station above the Atlantic Ocean. Photograph: NASA/ZUMA Wire/REX/Shutterstock

So you immersed yourself in footage of Expedition 62. What else inspired your work?

Alina: We watched and rewatched about 30 interviews of Meir during her 6 months in space. Her fantastic presence, sincerity and poetic tone led us to select and collage fragments from her speech into a script that is now the red thread carrying the film. The desired effect was to create some kind of a diary from space, encapsulating experiences, thoughts, fears, dreams, uncertainties.

Vladimir: Being two authors, the advantage was that we could benefit from each other’s experiences and previous references in terms of visual language. For example, I had in mind Leviathan by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, while Alina thought of Out of the present by Andrei Ujica. Then, we also tried to build a common ground about what was recently produced in relation to human space exploration. We watched Challenger: The Final Flight, A Year in Space, Apollo 11, to name a few. We tried to absorb anything related to the theme and in the background, our perpetual filmic inspiration left a trace on the film without us even realising. Also, the contemplative music of Lamin Fofana inspired us and helped us build this mood of alienation and nostalgia, as the film progresses from a “normal” mission to a strange reality.

About the film-makers

Manolache is a Romanian documentary film director with a background in visual arts. Her filmography includes the short films Your Visit Starts Here, filmed in Paris at Centre Pompidou, and End of Summer, which premiered at Visions du Réel 2016. In 2020, she premiered the documentary Lost Kids on the Beach, her feature film debut (IDFA 2020).

Potop is a Romanian, London-based film-maker and photographer. He graduated from the London College of Fashion in 2012 and has been active as a film-maker ever since. When he wants to take a break from the complicated world of fashion he likes to escape into making bread and experimental documentaries. The last film he worked on, Gereza (Hustler), won Best Documentary at Norwich film festival in 2018.

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