At The Movies: It’s Quieter in the Twilight

338
In the new film “It’s Quieter in the Twilight,” Voyager Engineer Enrique Medina speaks with the Deep Space Network in Australia. Photo courtesy of Weigel Productions

The Voyager 1 spacecraft was a singular project when NASA launched it in September 1977.  Its aim, as a space probe, was to study the outer solar system and interstellar space, beginning with flybys of planets Jupiter and Saturn. Later, its mission was extended to locate and study the regions and boundaries of the outer heliosphere and to explore the interstellar medium in 2012. 

To this day, it continues to penetrate space, having traveled some 14 billion miles from earth. It will be shut down in 2025. (To note: a twin probe, Voyager 2, was launched weeks before Voyager 1 and performed flybys of Uranus and Neptune).

All these years, scientists at NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California have been piloting and obtaining readings from the space vehicle, which continues to reveal secrets in our solar system.  Even as the probe’s distance increases and its information thins out, a small group of scientists still follow the progress of this historic experiment. “It’s Quieter in the Twilight” tells us the story of these scientific holdouts, now in the “twilight” of their work (now in release, the film runs a crisp 83 minutes and is not rated—though it contains nothing objectionable).

The film uses ample historic and animation footage of the Voyager conception, construction, and launch and contains many film and video excerpts of its findings, especially around Saturn in its early days.  But what this film really concentrates on is the dwindling but dedicated personnel still monitoring the project.    

The remaining Voyager team of scientists—now down to a dozen or so—work in a non-descript building “next to a McDonalds.” They are comfortable in the quiet; it suits them. Yet this quirky team of engineers—now in their 70’s and 80’s–are still pushing the notion of discovery, traveling among stars propelled only by dwindling sunlight.

The remaining staff is also pleasantly diverse. They include a sweet woman from rural South Korea (Sun Matsumoto), a man from the Jim Crow South (Jefferson Hall), and two South Americans who found rich lives as scientists in the U.S. (Enrique Medina and Fernando Peralta), as well as the groups’ director Suzy Dodd and a cluster of others.  All those interviewed are articulate and knowledgeable, as well as good-humored about their status on a predestined project. They display no regrets, but sometimes evince a sense of nostalgia, even pathos, describing their life’s work. 

The director of the film, documentarian Billy Miossi, has spoken eloquently about this Voyager team in an interview: “There’s a unique dichotomy that drew me into the story of the aging Voyager mission. The grandest feat of human exploration being steered by a humble few sitting in a drab office space. They seek no fame, no recognition. Instead, they’re content to quietly contribute a novel expertise for the sake of a deeper understanding of the vastness that exists beyond our world.  So much is owed to a tiny team of engineers who have forgone promotions, and now retirement. To understand…their devotion is what lies at the heart of ‘It’s Quieter in the Twilight.’”

Members of the robotics team work on a robot in “Afghan Dreamers.”
Photo courtesy of MTV Documentary Films

Afghan Dreamers

The Afghan Girls Robotics Team, also known as the “Afghan Dreamers,” is an all-girl robotics team from Herat, Afghanistan, founded in 2017 by Roya Mahboob and made up of girls between the ages of  12 and 18, all students at the Herami High School. Some 150 girls contended for the team, which was whittled down to six. Mahboob is the group’s coach, mentor, and sponsor and was recruited to form a team from Afghanistan to attend a competition in the US.

The girls include Fatemah, who became the team captain, Lida, a lifetime lover of video games, and Somaya, with an aptitude for mechanics. Besides Roya as their backer, they had sturdy support from Fatemeh’s mother, a psychologist.

In 2017, six Dreamers traveled to the US to participate in the First International Global Challenge robotics competition, which took place in the DAR’s Constitution Hall in DC. Though their visas were rejected twice (because of the Trump Administration’s Muslim ban), officials in the US Congress and the United States government intervened to allow them to finally enter the United States. 

They were awarded a Silver Medal for “Courageous Achievement,” and returned home as young heroes and became national celebrities. Soon after they came home from the competition, the fragility of their world came home to them when the father of team captain Fatemah, Mohammad Asif Qaderyan, was killed in a suicide bombing. After their United States visas expired, the team participated in competitions in Canada and Mexico.

The film opens with the girls’ participation in the May 2018 Oslo Freedom Forum, where Somaya Faruqi addresses the assembled:  “ ‘Afghan Dreamers’ is the story of every little girl who fights for the right to attend school and engineer our planet,” said Faruqi. “I hope this film draws the world’s eyes to Afghanistan, where girls today can only dream of attending school and living how we choose.”

In 2019 the Dreamers entered a competition in Dubai, and the film shows their participation there, where they were challenged to design a robot to remove trash items from the ocean. They did not succeed and returned to Afghanistan where leader Mahboob challenged them to persist and improve.  In 2020, the Afghan Dreamer’s Institution was founded to use technology to rebuild their country, and the Dreamers, teenagers, looked forward to attending university and perfecting their skills.

In 2021, however, the Taliban began to make advances on Kabul from the West and take over the capital (shown in familiar conflict footage from August 2021). The new regime quickly banned girls over 12 from all schools, shutting down the Dreamers’ future in their own country. They then fled to other lands.

David Greenwald, a versatile film editor turned director, helms “Afghan Dreamers” as a well-paced, mostly chronological story, using footage of their work and travels, interspersed with interviews of the girls: all sweet, articulate, and inspired by their love of science.

Asked about their achievement, Greenwald replied. “The Taliban can ban girls from going to school. They can prevent women doctors from practicing medicine or not allow female judges from entering the courtroom. But one thing they can’t do is erase the accomplishments of the Afghan girl’s robotic team. They’re part of Afghan history now and their hopes and dreams live on in the hearts and minds of every Afghan girl.”

Hill resident Mike Canning wrote on movies for the Hill Rag since 1993 and was a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association. He is the author of “Hollywood on the Potomac: How the Movies View Washington, DC” His reviews and writings on film can be found online at www.mikesflix.com