New Doc Explores the Pitfalls of Colonizing Space

The experiment was failing. Nelly Ben Hayoun-Stépanian was in a cave in Spain, one outfitted to resemble the surface of a foreign planet, and she knew it was time to pull out. The goal had been to test how three people— Ben Hayoun-Stépanian and two of her doppelgängers—would form a new society in space using their perspectives as people whose lives have been touched by colonization here on Earth.

“My doppelgängers only stayed with me two nights, then they left because we had to abort the mission,” says Ben Hayoun-Stépanian. “There was a whole drama situation happening.”

If you want to know exactly what the drama was, you’ll have to watch Ben Hayoun-Stépanian’s new documentary, Doppelgängers³, which premieres this weekend at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. Suffice to say, even if the experiment didn’t go as planned, it still proved her point: Humanity’s quest to explore space needs input from people who aren’t millionaires or leaders of government space agencies.

When she’s not making films, Ben Hayoun-Stépanian is an artist and the SETI Institute’s “designer of experiences.” One of her goals is to bring “queer ecofeminist perspectives” to space travel, and with Doppelgängers³ she wanted to show folks like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos—the ones seeking to commercialize space travel—what it means to colonize the cosmos.

“It’s a call for action, a call for members of the public to take ownership of these futures,” Ben Hayoun-Stépanian says of the film, “because if you’re not, other people are going to do it for you.”

Ben Hayoun-Stépanian’s method for bringing in these voices is twofold. For one, she spends a good chunk of the documentary talking to experts—planetary scientist Christopher McKay, physicist Michio Kaku, among others—about trauma, space exploration, and parallel selves. For the other, she relies on her doppelgängers: Lucia Kagramanyan and Myriam Amroun, two people who share Ben Hayoun-Stépanian’s background but not her lived experiences.

Photograph: Nick Ballón