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Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh • Directors of Gagarin

“To our character, this building is like a spaceship: if you go out, you can’t breathe”


- We met up with Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh, the directors of Gagarin, to talk about their central character, Youri, and his intergalactic ambitions

Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh • Directors of Gagarin
(© Thomas Niedermueller/Getty Images/Zurich Film Festival)

Bowing at the Zurich Film Festival following its Cannes label recognition, Gagarin [+see also:
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is truly a surprising adventure in which teenager Youri, living in a housing project on the outskirts of Paris, Cité Gagarine, is dreaming of outer space. Even more so when the only home he has ever known is about to be demolished. We caught up with directors Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh at Zurich.

Cineuropa: What exactly drew you to Cité Gagarine?
Trouilh: We discovered it the first time we arrived in Paris, five years ago. We met as students and really wanted to make movies, and our architect friends were working on a project there just as the inhabitants of this building were leaving, making way for its future demolition. They invited us to make documentary portraits, so we arrived there and discovered this huge building. The first impact was visual, really. After that, people told us it was named after [Soviet cosmonaut and the first person to travel into space] Yuri Gagarin, bringing to mind all those 1960s utopias. We thought it was beautiful. It all began with a short film [also named Gagarine], but we needed more than 15 minutes to tell a story about this whole community.

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Fanny Liatard: There are many places around Paris, and in other cities all around the world, that have quite a bad reputation. Their inhabitants usually end up suffering because of this image, especially young people. We wanted to tell another story and invent a hero who would be a dreamer. Then, maybe we could pay tribute to this place as well, we thought, a place which was going to soon disappear – along with all the beautiful stories of three generations living there.

You definitely show how much they love this place. One person even steals his letter box, saying: “They took my home, but they won't take my letter box!”
These are marginalised areas: places “where the poor live”. The media show them as violent, deprived of any prospects. In France, they actually say “films du banlieue”, or films about the suburbs, about anything that’s set there, as if it were some kind of new genre. No – there are many different stories to tell there. We wanted to show that there are strong communities; it’s just that sometimes they live in poor conditions, in buildings in need of renovation. Kids who live there sometimes don’t feel welcome outside. To Youri, this building is really like a spaceship: if you go out, you can’t breathe. It’s almost as if this place were his mum’s belly. He is not ready to leave.

FL: We spent a lot of time with these people: we witnessed the whole process and saw them leave, one after another. Even though the building did have problems, they all had memories hidden inside. We got inspired by their tales, by feelings we could later add to the film.

While watching it, “Rocket Man” was playing inside my head. Why the idea to have this space fantasy?
We actually tried that during the editing [laughs].

JT: And “Space Oddity”, of course. When we shot Youri in that red light, wearing a spacesuit, we did it with Bowie's music to show how proud he is of being an astronaut. Directing our first feature and taking inspiration from our favourite movies, from things like 2001: A Space OdysseyBlade Runner and Solaris – it was a wonderful game. It’s not a science-fiction movie, of course, as it's grounded in reality. But we wanted to have this hero and make you believe he is able to go into space. And make this building look like a spaceship sometimes, and then at others just like another abandoned place.

Like Stalkers the Zone? But yes, he is so serious about his plan that you almost forget how crazy it really is.
We were looking for someone sweet, with a big inner world that you can see in his eyes. Someone a bit shy, who is between childhood and adulthood. Just like [actor] Alseni Bathily, which became clear when we met him.

JT: Youri is not some eerie dreamer; he is a creator. We often talked about magical realism being an inspiration, with its balance between the challenge of showing a tough reality and looking at it from a distance, stepping aside a bit.

FL: The first time we see Youri, there are all these images of spaceships behind him. It’s in his head and in his room. Little by little, it spreads out – into other flats and all of the corridors. And when he finally appears to be floating, weightless, hopefully you can believe it precisely because it happened so slowly. We are with him, sharing his loneliness and imagination, and even this “craziness”. You can follow him all the way into space.

JT: What’s amazing is [his friend] Diana’s tolerance. He opens his door, afraid of being judged for his loneliness and maybe his craziness. And she is just curious. That creates this connection. The question of communication was a big part of the film. People speak different languages, and we wanted to give these characters new tools so that when one is missing, they find something else. Youri is not a talker, but Diana teaches him Morse code. And then he can send an SOS to the world.

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