Stills from Journeys Beyond the Cosmodrome, 2019.
"Finley’s stunning, brilliantly collaborative movie puts Kazakh teens at the center of a universe. As they prepare to graduate, the teens devise visionary tales to protect and guide them. With unforgettably beautiful images and music, the film fashions these stories into talismans, bending the cosmos around each child." - Laura Marks
On the vast Kazakhstan Steppes, nine 16-year-olds prepare to graduate from the Akkol orphanage. Rockets launched overhead from the nearby Cosmodrome inspire their dreams as they write about and perform their imagined future-selves. Guided by the nomadic spirit and natural beauty of the Steppes, the teens explore questions of time and truth in relation to the challenging reality of their lives. Traditional Kazakh culture, global popular iconography, and space travel are infused throughout their performances and imaginatively used as protective talismans on their journey into an uncertain adulthood.
Lyazzat Khanim’s Russian voice-over intertwines her reflections on her two summers spent working with the teens with her own childhood memories. Only a few years older than the teens, Lyazzat becomes part of their chosen family group. Time-lapse imagery of the cosmos intertwines with microscope footage of earthly materials such as flowers, metals, grass and dirt. As the teens perform their futures, these images spiral around them, making vivid their tie to the land and their dreams of flight.
An original score composed from the teenagers’ written words recalls the imagined futures the teens carry as they leave the home that has guided them to this threshold, and to which they can never return.
Over two summers, sixteen teenagers participated in writing, video and photographic workshops led by Lydia Matthews, Lyazzat Khanim and Jeanne C. Finley. After viewing scientific and fictional films of space travel the group discussed their dreams, articulated potential challenges, and identified what aspects of Kazakh folk culture they would take with them into their new universe. By interweaving traditional literature, global popular culture, and their own personal desires we challenged the students to write about what would empower them as they enter adult Kazakh society with little or no support. The students then playfully performed these stories with simple objects found at the orphanage.
Finley brought the photographic portfolio and written stories back to the teens in the form of a book and exhibition held at the orphanage and the Tengri Umai Gallery in Almaty, Kazakhstan. We engaged more students, creating new images, narratives, and performances and have followed the teens after they left the orphanage.
A 15-minute short film with five teens was presented in 2018 with the score sung live by the Threshold Choir. This expanded film performance included original songs written by Kri Schlafer and was streamed live to the orphanage. The current 55-minute film grew out of that performance.
As an adoptive mother of a Kazakh son, I intend for viewers to part from this film with a newfound understanding about the complications created by disrupted childhoods and the subsequent journeys into orphanages, foster care and adoption.
Journeys developed into a full-length documentary on what felt like its own volition. This volition was fueled by a sense of necessity derived from the wealth of creative imagery and writing that were developed by the teenagers during workshops I held at Kazakhstan’s Akkol orphanage.
The realities of life for orphans and displaced children is far more complicated and challenging than generally described. It always begins with loss and there is no single story or solution than can summarize or solve this complexity. Through the development of creative imagination, each child’s story and situation must be considered individually, not as policy, in order to address the core of their trauma. The 16-year-olds “aging out” of the Akkol Orphanage were prompted to tell their stories through writing and recorded performances. Their handwritten answers ranged from the feasible to the fantastic. Journeys is an homage to, and an extension of the work that these teenagers created.