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The Farthest
the farthest

An Irish documentary tells the incredible story of the Voyager spacecraft

We talked to the film’s director, Emer Reynolds.

Originally published 28 July. The Farthest will be broadcast on RTÉ One at 10.15pm tonight.

IN SEPTEMBER 1977, a pair of small spacecraft were sent out to space, with the hope they would never return to earth.

Called Voyager 1 and 2, they were two of the most important human inventions in history – and they are still out there, sending back information about the furthest reaches of the solar system. (You can track their journeys in real-time here.)

Now an Irish team has made a documentary on the Voyager programme, called The Farthest, which features interviews with the scientists involved, and stunning digital footage of the Voyager crafts’ journeys.

The director, Emer Reynolds, told that she was inspired to begin the project due to her deep love of science. She studied pure mathematics in Trinity College Dublin, and fell in love with filmmaking after joining the student film society. So to be able to combine her two loves is clearly a career highlight for her.

The film has been raking in the plaudits since it was first screened at film festivals, and was released in Irish cinemas this weekend.

farthest one The Verge The Verge

farthest 2 Irish Times Irish Times

farthest 3 ScreenDaily ScreenDaily

Interstellar mission

The documentary looks at Nasa’s plan to send spacecraft on an interstellar mission, in an effort to journey where humans could not. It shows how there was hope, too, that the little spacecraft might impart information on human life to those who might find it.

That’s why a ‘golden record’ was placed on board each craft – a vinyl disc filled with sounds and images that depict human life up to the 1970s.

You don’t need to be an alien to know what was on the record – you can listen to parts of it online:

NASA / SoundCloud

A film editor who made the move to documentary making in the past few years, Reynolds says it has “been really humbling” hearing the hugely enthusiastic feedback about the film.

“You get a real dose of joy every time you put it in front of an audience,” she says, describing the story as one of “human dreams and achievement”.

The story of Voyager had never been given the big-screen treatment until Reynolds and team came on board. A twist of fate meant that their idea could come to fruition quicker than they realised: it was just after she and producer John Murray began pitching the idea that Voyager 1 went interstellar, and media attention was on it yet again.

Next, the filmmakers went through an intense research period, before tracking down the scientists who worked on the original project.

“We were trying to find people that would be prepared to talk to us, but more than that – because we wanted to make a film that was very human and tapped into the human side as opposed to dry science,” says Reynolds.

The film, she assures, is not aimed at the “space-y science-y types” – it’s for everyone. It is, at its heart, a human story. “It goes into the heart of what makes us human, the great mysteries that define our existence,” says Reynolds.

Voyager, and the golden record, will never return home. They were sent from earth on a journey with no known end, to discover things we haven’t even dreamt of.

“The chances of it ever being recovered and the stylus being taken out of its little box and turntable and record being played is highly unlikely,” reflects Reynolds. “So in many ways it’s a story about hope but also a story about the record maybe – Carl Sagan even said at the time it was more of a message to earth, to ourselves.”

Pale Blue Dot

One of the scientists working on the project was the above-mentioned Carl Sagan, and at one point he decided Voyager 1 should be turned around so it could capture an image of Earth.

That image, known as the Pale Blue Dot photograph, was a huge moment for science and space exploration – and for the ordinary person in realising their place in the solar system.

PIA00452_modest This narrow-angle color image of the Earth, dubbed 'Pale Blue Dot', is a part of the first ever 'portrait' of the solar system taken by Voyager 1. NASA / JPL NASA / JPL / JPL

As Nasa recounts:

Sagan wrote in his Pale Blue Dot book: “That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. … There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.”

Reynolds describes this photo as a “real paradigm shift”, which led to more reflection on whether or not we are alone in the solar system. “We’re possibly alone. Could earth be the only place to harbour life?” she asks, posing a question which brings up the issue of “the responsibility that places on us to treat it better”.

There is a message in The Farthest about “how unique and rare and a jewel this place [earth] is and how badly we are treating it”, says its director.

“I’m very honoured to say people write to me and express feeling a real profound sense of awe, of questioning of their own humanity and their own place in the universe,” she says.

Reynolds believes that, contrary to what some think, science is an emotional subject.

“It’s a wonderful way for me to bring people into my perception of how extraordinary science is and how human and emotional and exciting it is, and deeply creative,” she says. “So that’s been a wonderful piece of the learning – that me and my team and Voyager and all the contributors in the film have been able to express that joy of science.

It’s not dry and cold, it’s a well of emotion. It goes right to the heart of what makes it human.

Breaking gender boundaries

CTL Productions / Vimeo

Beyond the topic at hand, what’s particularly striking about The Farthest is the number of women who worked on it. I ask Reynolds about this, and how it may tie into the recent moves by the Irish Film Board to address gender imbalance in Ireland’s film industry.

“It’s wonderful now to see, the change is so positive and it’s so dynamic. And it’s a real turning of the wheel, which I really applaud,” says Reynolds of the deliberate steps to bring about gender parity. Over the years she worked as a film editor, just a “minuscule fraction” of the directors she worked with were women.

“Encouraging women into key positions is fantastic for everyone,” she says. The film itself reflects that.

“We took it as read that women’s voices would be loud and proud in it,” says Reynolds. This also reflects the growth in acknowledgement of women’s role in scientific discoveries, such as the film Hidden Figures.

After the documentary was shown at the Audi Dublin International Film Festival, Reynolds got three letters from young girls (two aged 10 and one aged 12) telling her they want to be scientists.

“I was like, ‘my work is done’,” says Reynolds. “That was the thrill of a lifetime, for me to inspire them.”

The digital effects in the film are incredible, and were created in just a year by the Monkstown-based Benny Kenny. ”Hollywood films would normally have hundreds of CGI artists – we had one,” says Reynolds, praising Kenny’s work.

But though the documentary is beautifully realised, and awe-inspiring to watch, it’s not just for ‘space nerds’. It’s for everyone, says its director.

“It’s more than a film about space, it’s a film about heart and soul and wonder and beauty. It’s that feeling that I want to get across – it’s just one to show all the family,” says Reynolds.

The Farthest is in cinemas from this weekend, and goes on theatrical release in the USA from 11 August. The Farthest was supported by Bord Scannán na hÉireann/the Irish Film Board (IFB) and produced in association with HHMI Tangled Bank Studios, RTÉ, BBC, ZDF, Arte and PBS. 

Read: Nasa has taken an aerial photo of Ireland’s gorse fires as public warned of health risks>

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