HOUSTON, WE HAVE A PROBLEM – The space race of Tito

“Even if it is not true, it says a lot about the society we live in.” 

That is the sarcastic comment of Slavoj Žižek, one of the most popular philosophers of our times, in the last scene of HOUSTON, WE HAVE A PROBLEM by the Slovenian director, Ziga Virc, presented at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival. How true this is can be confirmed in this entertaining docu-film, in reality a mockumentary (or a fiction in the guise of a documentary), based on the true/false dichotomy of the world of information.

Witty and ironical, Ziga Virc points his finger at the news factory, that is, the media information of the digital era. Instant fake fired from the networks of the four corners of the earth, seen as true or truthful because it is shared. Alternative facts, after-truths created at the speed of light on which false news proliferates.

Does truth still count for something? Has it ever counted in the mincer of historical narration? A legitimate doubt, because the creation of news is not unique to today and Ziga Virc demonstrates it drawing on a period, the Cold War years, fertile ground for myths and conspiracy theories.

Classified news, manipulated, artfully created, ready to be woven into the great tapestry of the complotting of those years.

Two main actors of the Cold War, the United States and Yugoslavia, two myths compared. The first, the Americans, made use of an extraordinary and unparalleled soft power, accompanying the indisputable primacy of hard power. Indisputable until when the Soviets, in 1957, launched Sputnik into space, placing the American supremacy in real danger.

HOUSTON, WE HAVE A PROBLEM begins here, from a true story, the USA-USSR space race, the Soviet triumph, the humiliation (bordering on mass hysteria) of the United States. The space race took on a frenetic pace, fed more by the thunder of Soviet propaganda than any actual technological leap over the States. Nevertheless, from 1957 to 1958, while the Soviet Sputnik space walks continued, the United States was experiencing one failure after another in satellite launches.

HOUSTON, WE HAVE A PROBLEM draws from film archives brilliantly combined with actual cinematographic inventions. The most spectacular of all, which underpins the docu-film of Ziga Virc – the sale of the Yugoslav space program to the Americans. How could you imagine John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, buying from a communist for two and half billion dollars the secrets to beat the Soviets in space? A fantastic  fake.

Kennedy versus Tito, two giants. The best side of America, the man of new frontiers, the first president born in the 20th century, the image of youth, and General Josip Broz Tito, the man who had led the resistance against the Nazi-Fascist occupation, the only communist leader to have liberated all alone the country, the founder of the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia, the great leader who had dared to oppose Stalin, saving Yugoslavia from the levelling of Soviet state planning. In 1961, it was him who first thought up a “third way”, a national version of a true self-managed socialism to be exported all over the free world, “non-aligned”.

Tito tended to think of himself as only second to Stalin. A bad example for the other “comrades” of Europe, the indomitable Marshal Tito was expelled from the Komintern in 1948 for “disloyalty to the Soviet state”. A free batter by character, Tito sat on the fence between the two systems, flattered by both, ready to give a wink to one or the other of the different political sides according to what was convenient at that moment. Even in the space race between the two super powers.

The facts, according to Ziga Virc’s docu-fiction would have gone like this – the war finishes, Tito orders his intelligence service to develop a space program based on the studies carried out by one of the greatest space travel pioneers, Herman Potocnik Noordung, an Austrian-Slovenian engineer. Object 505, in Croatia, the code name for the top secret site (now a heap of rubble) where the Yugoslav space miracle is created and its future astronauts made to float in an enormous tank to get used to a zero gravity environment. However, the weak link in this national mythology is the money.

“[…] it was very frustrating for us, the international markets granted us no credit, and we could not tell them we needed it for a space program […] the program was top secret and had to remain so. Tito was very ambitious and had great ideas, he couldn’t accept the idea of giving up […] according to some studies, Yugoslavia would have gone bankrupt.” (Franc Hofner, retired general of the Yugoslav army).

And so the American solution. The USA had the financial means but not the technology to bridge the gap with the USSR.

“American naivety tends to believe in the secrets of others.” (Slavoj Žižek)

Kennedy, newly elected and under pressure after the failures of NASA, wanted to do business. The images of Tito’s continual visits to the United States, the telephone calls with Kennedy, with Johnson, with Nixon, testify to the historical truth in Ziga’s mock-documentary, in the hottest years of the Cold War period. The truth is that already from the early fifties Yugoslavia had been receiving financial and military aid from the Americans, carefully planned with the idea to involve the undisciplined champion of Balkan communism in an alliance with Greece and Turkey under the NATO umbrella.

The rest is fiction (but are we so sure?), at times quite exhilarating, such as launching a piglet into orbit, finishing unscathed in the waters of the Italian coast to be then roasted, or the top secret transfer of space program equipment on board a Yugoslav navy boat to Morocco and from there to the United States, with Tito at the head of the diplomatic fleet. The Soviets sent Gagarin into space, (and this is true), the American money, a lot, to Tito’s Yugoslavia, allowing him to dramatically increase the economic benefits of the Balkan version of true socialism.

Let’s return to the fiction. The Americans realize quite soon that the Yugoslav technology didn’t work – it was rubbish – underdeveloped stuff. With Johnson, the threats begin – ”either the technology works or the money back”. To avoid the danger of bankruptcy, Tito sends, in great secrecy (practically a kidnapping), twenty Yugoslav engineers involved in the project to America.

Ivan Pavic, the main character of HOUSTON, WE HAVE A PROBLEM is one of them.

“He was the right man, […] we killed him in a car accident, we held his funeral… he was then sent secretly to NASA.” (Franc Hofner)

The Americans understand that the Yugoslav technology would never have worked. Nixon threatens to overthrow the Yugoslav regime, Tito thinks up another “hoax” – to export as a compensation, the Yugo, the flagship of the made in Yugoslavia automobile industry which would have invaded the stars and stripes market.

Buy Yugo – another flop. The first to be disappointed was Tito himself. Here, HOUSTON, WE HAVE A PROBLEM reaches its predictable and inevitable conclusion: conspiracy. Tito weakened would have been forced to accept under CIA pressure a new constitution (1974) that would recognize more powers and autonomy for the single republics. For the White House, something more manageable, for Yugoslavia, the beginning of the end.

To round off, the final images of Bill Clinton‘s speech in Slovenia (1999) where he promises democracy, human rights and business “[…] we secure you freedom [..] Slovenia can lead the way [..]”

In reality, the beginning of Yugoslav devolution sanctioned by the new constitution is an unescapable response to the growing pressures that were arriving from the different republics. Behind the mythology of Titoist patriotism and the uniqueness of his national socialism, the differences among the different nationalist ethnic groups persisted, their rivalry violently exploding on the death of Tito in 1980.  

The after-truth of HOUSTON, WE HAVE A PROBLEM (not unfamiliar to many parts of the population making up the Yugoslav mosaic) is obviously another – the Americans would be responsible for the disintegration of Yugoslavia, just like all the other evils they have afflicted on the world, post-bipolar, post-industrial.  It is certain that the existence of Yugoslavia with the ending of the Cold War and the breaking up of the USSR was no longer so necessary. And this is Truth.

And if, instead, it was all true, if the “truth was stranger than the fiction?”. If the Americans had really been led on in that way and even more so by a communist? If the end of Yugoslavia actually ran along a fil rouge that led from Nixon straight to Bill Clinton? No, we know that this story is not true. Yet, it is not so unimaginable.

There is one thing that HOUSTON, WE HAVE A PROBLEM leaves no doubt on – the Yugo was actually one of the worst cars in American history.

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