Sometimes, the circumstances surrounding the making of a film help make the experience of watching it richer. The most obvious example that comes to mind is Jafar Panahi’s Offside, a movie that was set and filmed during an actual 2006 World Cup qualifying match between Iran and Bahrain. In the final tense scenes, as a group of young women who have attempted to illegally sneak into the game are carted away by the police, the whole city of Tehran explodes in celebration when the Iranian team wins. Knowing that the revelry was not staged makes all the difference.
Directors Fanny Liatard and Jeremy Trouilh attempt something similar but more complicated. Their debut film is set in Cite Gagarine, a housing estate that was built on the outskirts of Paris in 1961, the year that Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man ever to venture into outer space and after whom the housing project was named. The film itself takes place as the projects were being torn down in 2019, and yet most of the action is set within its walls. Our hero, 16-year-old Youri (Alseni Bathily), also named after Gagarin, has lived in the projects ever since he immigrated to France as a young child; it’s the only home he’s ever known. True to his namesake, he’s obsessed with outer space, and studies the stars with a native intelligence that’s extended to the practical. He builds an observatory on the roof and helps neighbors set up satellite dishes to catch broadcasts and even repairs the elevators and replaces lightbulbs. During the course of the film, most of Youri’s neighbors, also immigrants from a wide range of backgrounds, move out to new digs as the building around them is prepared for demolition, but Youri stays, a squatter in a homemade plastic curtained cubicle filled with technology of his own devising.
Mostly abandoned by his mother, who’s off with a new boyfriend, Youri’s only companions are his best friend Houssam (Jamil McCraven) and Diana (Lyna Khoudri), a girl from the local Roma community, meaning she doesn’t have a fixed address by definition. Together, they create their own separate world thanks to Youri’s “spaceship,” for want of a better word, which contains its own greenhouse and facilities for providing sustenance amidst the general extinction.
Unlike other recent movies about the banlieues, Gagarine is hopeful and buoyant, even when Youri’s schemes turn to sabotage. And while its air of magical realism can sometimes feel forced, it honors the hopes and dreams of France’s marginalized communities without trivializing them. In the end, Youri wants to do right by the people he knows, and even the authorities are forced to bend to his ingenuity. Though it’s mostly unrealistic, Gagarine is a perfect tribute to the power of the unique imagination.
In French, Romany and Russian. Now playing in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608), Shinjuku Piccadilly (050-6861-3011).
Gagarine home page in Japanese
photo (c) 2020 Haut et Court – France 3 Cinema