At SXSW24: Doppelgängers³

I’ll confess, Doppelgängers³ wasn’t on my list of films to catch at the festival this year. My colleague Alexander Carpenter and I only screened it because a film we wanted to see filled up. I’m thankful for that inconvenience because this smart, quirky documentary was one of my favorites of the festival.

I’ll turn to the festival description of this film to set the tone:

Doppelgängers³ draws on the experience of diasporas to challenge the commercialisation of the moon. Through encounters with doppelgängers and meetings with scientists, visionaries and cultural inventors, Nelly Ben Hayoun-Stépanian and her doppelgängers offer an experimental vision and template for a future diaspora beyond Earth. The film culminates in an analog space mission in a deep cave in Spain in which we see Ben Hayoun-Stépanian and her doppelgängers experiencing a moon utopia. But things do not go according to plan… A visual, sonic experience with music by Pussy Riot, Colin Self and more.

The film is simultaneously less and more weird than the description makes it sound. It’s essentially about the ethics (and aesthetics) of space travel. Who gets to determine what missions look like? Who designs the goals for these missions? What does a prolonged, lived experience on the moon (and beyond) look like? Are we simply going to turn the moon into the next Earth with all of its inherent social dysfunctions and inequalities? Will we create new systems and ways of being in community with one another and with nature (?) on the moon or on Mars?

And this is what you get with Doppelgängers³, a series of deep questions only partially answered. But it’s not like they could be sufficiently answered in a series of 90-minute documentaries devoted to each single topic either. Thankfully, it’s also a visual feast as well, with a poppy aesthetic. While the film is full of talking heads sequences, these feel fresh thanks to Hayoun-Stépanian frequently occupying the frame with the subject matter expert, often quietly looking at the camera or observing her guests. This shouldn’t be surprising given the theme of this site, but my only criticism of the film is that I would have liked to see a lengthier and/or more diverse engagement with religious figures on the theological/religious/spiritual implications of the possibility of life being lived out on other rocks floating through space.

Who knows when and where you’ll get a chance to see Doppelgängers³, but hopefully this thought-provoking and surprisingly entertaining little doc will find a home on this planet to guide our thinking about life off of it. Until then, you can check out the trailer below.