Dunsink Lane, Dublin 15, D15 XR2R

The Farthest Q&A

Interview with Emer Reynolds, director of “The Farthest“, the story of the Voyager Mission

A guest article by Sarah Joyce, Transition Year Student 2017 and Young Scientific Reporter at DIAS Dunsink Observatory.

15th December 2017

“Look again at that dot. 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; on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”   Carl Sagan

As I write this, I am listening to a playlist of songs, pieces and recordings which are on a record  that’s currently over 13 billion miles away from the Sun. There’s works by Mozart, Beethoven, Louis Armstrong, Chuck Berry, and even a chant by the Navajo Indians. The playlist, of course, is that of the Golden Record, a time capsule of music, spoken greetings, and messages from Earth, and the only two copies of which are aboard the spacecrafts Voyager 1 and Voyager 2.

Sam Green, Emer Reynolds, Sarah Joyce and Samuel McKeague in the Hamilton Room at Dunsink Observatory.

Recently, after she spoke at Dunsink Observatory, I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to interview Emer Reynolds, director of The Farthest.  The film, telling the story of Voyager, arguably humanity’s greatest achievement, has been described as “stunning”, “inspiring”, and “exemplary”, and won Best Irish Documentary at the 2017 Dublin Film Festival. And it’s easy to see why. When I first saw the film, I was absolutely blown away by the unbelievable story of Voyager.

For me, one of the most captivating elements of Voyager is that of the Golden Record. Emer speaks about how, during the press tour for The Farthest, a young boy at the event asked her did she think Saturn’s rings were the aliens sending a record back to us. Emer reckons that if she were in charge of curating the songs on the Golden Record, she definitely would have included some Elvis, David Bowie, Bob Dylan. “I feel like there’s a lot more great music that could have gone on it. It’s like what they say, you know – Earth’s a planet that’s so weak it only has 90 minutes of decent music! What I like about it though is that they just went for it, and given the time and resources they had I think they did a good job.”

Visitors at the Q&A session with Emer Reynolds.

What really intrigued me about Emer’s discussion at Dunsink was the way she approached the subject as a filmmaker. Instead of having a narrator or a voiceover, the story is told entirely from the interviews given by various key figures involved in the launch and mission of Voyager 1 and 2. Each interview took over 3 hours to film, and Emer and her team completed 28 interviews to gather footage and piece together the narrative of the film. It’s very poignant seeing the interviewees on the archive film from the buildup and launch, and then their older selves reflecting on the experience during the interviews. As Emer puts it, The Farthest is as much a “meditation on time” as it is an enthralling tale of space, because, as she insightfully remarks, the “great divider [when it comes to the universe] isn’t space, but time”.

Not wanting to recount the story of Voyager in retrospect, the perfect opportunity came up in 2012, when Voyager 1 passed into interstellar space. Instead of it being something that had happened in the past, it was once again current news.  Emer and her team spent two years gathering funding for the film, and two more years making it. The three strands of the film, and indeed of Voyager itself; the launch and the science aspect of it, the Golden Record, and the philosophy and contemplation of sending a spacecraft with the idea of it outliving humanity, all come together to create something sublime in The Farthest.

Emer:  “I was very keen to make a film that talked about science the way I felt about it. Films like this can either be very touchy-feely or very cold and analytical. I wanted the story of Voyager to encompass both of these ideas. I’m very arty, I love music, poetry, literature, along with the science side of it all, and I never saw any conflict between them. They’re all just different ways of expressing our intellect. Voyager is special; it’s trying to talk to the audience in a different way, and it succeeds, or at least I think it does.”

Emer talks about how, during one of the press interviews for the film, an audience member commented that the film was half about the desire to know, and half about the desire to be known. She feels that it’s a story told in the space between science and art, that it shows that these seemingly conflicting narratives can combine to create a cohesive whole. “At its heart, the film is about questions; how did it all start? What’s out there? We really wanted to communicate that ambition, and I feel it does come through in the film.” One particularly memorable line from the film in relation to this is, “You don’t ask what a Mozart symphony is for, or a Picasso painting. All of this, it’s the search for answers”.

I’m interested to know how Emer and her team decided on the name “The Farthest” for the documentary. Emer tells me how it was originally producer John Murray’s idea. “I originally wanted to call it “Voyager”, but the problem with that is that it just makes you think of Star Trek. So when John said “The Farthest”, Claire [Stronge, producer] and I went “Yeah, that’s a weird mysterious word, that works!”. I think it really conjures up the heart of the story, it’s a word you remember, something you won’t forget easily, much like Voyager itself.”







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© Sarah Joyce 2018. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.