Director Minna Långström made a captivating documentary about how the planet Mars is explored and studied through images taken on the planet’s surface. During the process of making the film, its themes such as the truth value of images, turned out to be surprisingly relevant.
Where did the idea for The Other Side of Mars come from?
I have known Vandi Verma, the protagonist of the film since university. Her career has been extremely fascinating to follow. She was, for instance, one of the first people to operate the Curiosity-rover after it landed on Mars in 2012. My own curiosity to learn about her work and unique views were important factors behind this project. I have also always been interested in analysing the connection between humans and technology. It’s fascinating to ponder on how we can understand the world or what new we can learn through looking at images and data.
The Other Side of Mars was partly filmed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and it uses a lot of NASA’s Mars footage. How did you gain access to the Laboratory and the Mars photographs?
Getting access to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory was a massive challenge. Obviously, this is one of those places where the entire world is keen to go to. Even though I know Vandi personally, we had to jump through all the official hoops in order to be allowed to film there.
You have managed to collect a diverse group of experts to feature in this documentary. How did you choose the individuals that you decided to interview?
I wanted to incorporate diverse views and opinions into the documentary. It was also a conscious choice to include women and minorities in it. Vandi was an obvious expert to include in the film. All the other people I found through different channels. The thing that all the people I interviewed had in common was that they are all very science-minded. For them, the Mars project is not at all a megalomaniac adventure, but a unique opportunity to advance science.
What was the most surprising thing about making the film?
It was surprising to find myself working on such a topic! I have always been interested in science and the relationship between science and art. It was also surprising to realise how interesting and timely combination Mars and photography is. A considerable part of the information we have on Mars is based on photos taken by robots. It is very relevant at this point in time to think about the truth value of images.
Would you want to go visit Mars, if you ever got the opportunity?
No! Many people assume that in the future, big companies will make commercial space travel possible and take advantage of Mars as they please. An economist I interviewed told me this is very unlikely to happen. At least at the moment, the benefits of space travel don’t outweigh its costs and problems. Also the question about humans’ right to conquer space and other planets is extremely important. It would be very important to discuss what we are doing and how we are doing it, as it seems that people are quite a destructive species when we spread out to new places.
How has the documentary been received and what do you hope the audience gets out of it?
I’m very happy that the documentary has been screened at film festivals. I’ve also really enjoyed talking about the film at different events. When it comes to the audience, I don’t think the viewer needs any prior knowledge or information to enjoy or understand it. This is not a traditional science documentary in the sense that its goal is not to offer the viewer any factual information about Mars. Instead, the point is to get people thinking about their views on photos and their truth value and their own relationship to images. The focus is on the viewer’s own processes and thoughts, not on solely educating people.
The Other Side of Mars (dir. Minna Långström, 2019) screening in the The Future of Science theme evening organised by the Finnish Institute in Glasgow 30/11/2020 at 7.30pm. Duration 56min, free admission.
Centre for Contemporary Arts, 350 Sauchiehall Street Glasgow G2 3JD
Text: Eeva Lehtonen Photo: Minna Långström