Director Alice Winocour talks to Katherine McLaughlin about her new film Proxima, a heartrending drama exploring the love between a female astronaut and her young daughter, as well as the trials of being a woman in a male-dominated industry

I n 1991, Helen Sharman became the first British astronaut in space after being chosen to take part in the Soviet scientific mission, Project Juno. She spent 18 months training at the legendary base of the Soviet space program, Star City; the same location that director Alice Winocour decided to shoot her earthbound space movie about navigating a career in a male-dominated field. The film also takes place at the European Space Agency and charts a cosmonaut’s gradual separation from her daughter as she nears her ambition of heading to the International Space Station.

Actress Eva Green takes on the lead role of Sarah, who on reaching for the stars, is faced with an intensive training programme and less time with her child, Stella (saucer-eyed newcomer Zélie Boulant). ‘We met a lot of female astronauts together,’ says Winocour. ‘Eva was really impressed by their physical condition and their muscular arms, even though they weren’t training anymore. Eva was very serious about portraying the body of a real astronaut.’ This is French filmmaker Winocour’s third feature as director after Augustine and Disorder, but she is also famous for co-writing the Oscar-nominated feminist coming of ager, Mustang, alongside Deniz Gamze Ergüven. Of the top grossing films in 2019, women made up only 12% of directors, so did Winocour’s experience of sexism in the movie industry inform how she approached the screenplay? ‘Of course, it’s something we see in the film. It’s not the worst thing I wanted to talk about in the movie because as women we are used to those kinds of encounters. You have to do the same work as men, but a little more not to be exposed to criticism.’

Proxima plays out as an incredibly moving love story between mother and daughter. It wrestles with feelings of guilt and anxiety but also explores the wider messages that are being transmitted to women. ‘That society makes you think that you have to choose between having children and your job, that’s something that’s very hard for women. Why are there only 10% of women astronauts? I don’t know the exact percentage of female directors but it’s similar. Is it because some women don’t even dare to dream that they can do this kind of work?’ Winocour has a daughter and drew from her own personal experience in this regard. She found common ground when speaking to the female astronauts who had children. The end credits act as a dedication to them, as they roll with photographs of women pictured with their families. ‘A trainer at the ESA told me she had been training a woman for more than six months and at the very end of the training only learned she had kids. I could relate to the silence and not talking about your children at work. You don’t need to be in a cinema world or astronaut world to have that feeling. You can work in a factory and have the same problems. At work, having children is still considered a weakness if you’re a woman.’

General release postponed due to COVID-19 virus. See review, page 71.

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