In the cinematic imagination council flats are often places of danger and degradation. But in Gagarine they can be something else entirely—they can be spaceships.
This film tells the story of the real-life demolition of Paris’s giant Cite Gagarine estate through the eyes of space obsessed, teenage resident Youri (Alseni Bathily).
Abandoned by his mum, the 16 year old lives alone in the flat they once shared, but is cared for by a variety of people in his block. In many ways, the building itself seems to nurture him.
In return, Youri uses his engineering skills to repair the estate’s ever-growing faults, and to improve people’s lives.
In one simple scene he and his friends erect a black canvas cover near the building’s entrance. Later that day, hundreds of people crowd under it to watch a solar eclipse.
The material allows them to see the shadow of the moon slowly blocking out the sun.
The crowd chants Youri’s name, and his friend Houssam (Jamil McCraven) looks towards him admiringly and tells him to bask in his glory.
Youri exchanges the last of his mum’s jewellery for light fittings that he hopes will help the building pass a coming health and safety inspection.
But despite his efforts, Gagarine is doomed.
When the estate opened in 1963, it was supposed to be the future—a place where working class people could live in dignity. The legendary cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, whose name it borrowed, even came to cut the ribbon.
But more than 50 years later there is dangerous subsidence, exposed asbestos and lifts that are constantly broken.
The way the film handles the transition between the real and imaginary worlds is perhaps its greatest strength
Unsurprisingly, the flats fail the inspection and demolition is quickly announced. Soon everyone has left, and builders are busy shuttering the place.
Only one person secretly stays on—Youri. Though apparently loved by everyone, he falls through the cracks.
Alone in his flat he busies himself constructing a space station. It is a work of genius.
There are plants that grow through a mixture of feed and artificial light, and a white panel-lined sleeping quarters that looks like a film set. All manner of devices ensure that Youri survives despite essential services having been cut off.
In the brutal “real world” the builders are busy smashing the life out of his building. But in Youri’s semi‑imaginary world the future is still one of bold possibilities.
The way the film handles the transition between these two spheres is perhaps its greatest strength.
Memories of the estate are intertwined with the contemporary, and set to music, with French old school rock legend Serge Gainsbourg remixed as dub reggae.
In the end, of course, there has to be a clash between the real and the imagined. The buildings are wired, the charges are set and a crowd of former residents are gathered to see a big part of their lives blown away.
But where is Youri? His imagination has one last trick to play.