NYWIFT at Sundance: In Conversation with Valda Witt

By Katie Chambers

Many children – and more than a few adults – dream of long-distance space exploration. But what about the real human toll of that kind of journey? The new documentary The Longest Goodbye, which debuted at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, takes a poignant look at the fundamentals of day-to-day reality in space: the isolation, confinement, and lack of privacy and social contact. And yes, it does sound a bit like life in COVID, but with even less opportunity for reprieve. In his engrossing, heartwarming, and beautifully contemplative documentary, Ido Mizrahy ponders the conflict between our need for connectivity and the urge to explore the unknown.

“We began working with the filmmakers of The Longest Goodbye—which looks at space travel’s psychological toll on astronauts—before COVID entered our world,” said NYWIFT member Lois Vossen, Executive Producer of the film and the series Independent Lens on PBS. “The physiological and social factors associated with a journey to Mars grew even more fascinating as we all faced new forms of isolation when our planet shut down during the pandemic. The emotional and physical human cost that space travelers wrestle with when separated from their families was reflected in our pandemic lives here on Earth. The documentary illuminates how humans are vulnerable and courageous in ways that NASA’s technical ingenuity can predict but not fully comprehend.”

Executive producer Valda Witt spoke to us about the project. Witt is an independent producer and investor based in New York City. Her narrative and documentary features have premiered at Tribeca, Venice, Oldenburg and Hot Docs film festivals. Witt currently serves as President of the Browning School, a K-12 all boys school in NYC and as an advisory board member for Zero Gravity Corporation, a space entertainment, tourism and education company. She began her career in management consulting at McKinsey & Co. and has an MBA from the Wharton School.  

Witt discussed her childhood dreams of space exploration, favorite moments making the film, and getting to know scientists and astronauts in a deeply personal way.


Executive Producer Valda Witt


Congratulations on your Sundance 2023 screening! What does inclusion in Sundance mean to you?

It means the world to me. If I were writing the story for our film, The Longest Goodbye, I would have it premiere at Sundance – Day One – at the Egyptian Theatre. And that’s what actually happened. Wow.


How did you get involved in The Longest Goodbye?

At South by Southwest in 2014, I happened to wander into the enormous exhibition hall of the SXSW Tech Conference where I spied a giant model of a rocket ship. Intrigued, I approached what I quickly recognized as a NASA exhibition. I asked, “What is that?”

“That’s the Space Launch System that will take us to Mars,” the NASA folks explained.

“We are going to Mars?” I exclaimed. I immediately thought, there is a film that must be made about this. I left the exhibition hall charged with adrenaline and called Ido Mizrahy, the person I wanted to direct it.


Cady Coleman appears in The Longest Goodbye by Ido Mizrahy, an official selection of the World Documentary Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute. | Photo by NASA/Bill Ingalls.)


Have you always been interested in space exploration? And now having seen what the astronauts go through…do you think you could handle it?

I’ll be the first to say I could not!! One of my earliest memories is watching the moon landing in 1969 on my family’s Zenith black & white television. From that moment on, I wanted to become an astronaut. While other careers have gotten in the way, I have never lost the dream of going to space. If I could get past being a scaredy-cat, I would absolutely go.


It was interesting to see some of the challenges of space exploration that are not normally touched on – like the emotional impact on astronauts and their families, the psychological toll of spending so much time in a confined space, and more – as well as high-tech potential solutions such as using AI as a therapist and VR to allow astronauts to “experience” home. What were some of the most interesting things you learned while working on this film?

It’s all fascinating. From a technology perspective, I am in awe of what is already possible. I am truly excited (and in the case of AI maybe even slightly afraid) by the potential of technology to enable humans to endure and hopefully even thrive during long duration space missions.

Even more significantly, these advances have the capacity to ease the suffering of those on Earth, such as the elderly, who are experiencing isolation and separation from home and loved ones. I am particularly hopeful about the potential of virtual reality to provide both connection and, when desired, escape.


German astronaut Matthias Maurer with AI named “Cimon” in The Longest Goodbye (photo from ITVS.org)


I was especially taken by the conversation around how astronauts in space are nearly always on camera for safety reasons, but that also means that their supervisors scrutinize every single move they make. They are always worried about doing something – even if it’s a fleeting facial expression at the wrong moment – that might get them passed over for the next mission. In all the many stories I’ve seen about space exploration, that’s something I’ve never seen discussed. What about The Longest Goodbye sets it apart from other narrative tales and documentaries about space travel?

What makes space travel possible is people – scientists, engineers, explorers, investors, entrepreneurs, government leaders. This film is about the amazing humans behind it all. Astronauts are truly incredible folks: they are brilliant, insanely accomplished, strong, and courageous.

In this film, we get to know them as people, who like all of us, experience ups and downs, feelings of confidence and doubt, wins and losses.


Cady Coleman appears in The Longest Goodbye by Ido Mizrahy, an official selection of the World Documentary Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute. | Photo by NASA.)


What was your biggest challenge working on the documentary? And favorite moment?

We are so grateful to the people at NASA who welcomed us to explore their facilities and meet their people in the early phases of our research. The challenge was to gain the trust to get beyond the facts and explore the personal. Our partners at ITVS were pivotal in getting NASA’s official approval and provided significant editorial notes during the editing process. They are a dream to work with.

A favorite moment for me was arriving at former astronaut Cady Coleman’s home in rural Massachusetts in my Toyota minivan and being stopped by a gentleman in the driveway asking for my credentials in a most serious manner. Seeing the look of panic on my face, he smiled, shook my hand through the window, and introduced himself: Josh Simpson, Cady’s husband, a world-renowned glass artist with a wicked sense of humor. I knew instantly we were going to have an incredible shoot with this family.


What do you hope audiences take away from the film? 

Honestly, I just want everyone to simply have something or things to think and/or talk about when they see it. Ideally, they might identify with something they see.

I think that anyone who has had to spend extended time away from home and loved ones can relate to the sometimes agonizing feeling of separation – navigating different time zones, wrestling with inadequate means to really communicate, missing the physical touch of a loved one…I think of those serving in the military, immigrants working to provide a better life for their families back home, spouses living apart because of career demands.

And while it is never directly referenced in the film, it is easy to see the parallels to our shared experience of prolonged isolation under lockdown during COVID. The pandemic literally reshaped our means of communication and the nature of our relationships. And for some, the re-entry into “normal” life is a challenge as it might be for astronauts returning to Earth after extended time in space.


Valda Witt on the red carpet at Sundance


Did you attend the festival in person this year? If so, how was your experience – any favorite moments, events, or films?

I did! It was my first time going to Sundance with a film; it was a bit of an out-of-body experience. Like, “is this really happening?” Sharing the experience with my husband Jay, who supported me and the project from the beginning felt so good. Having so much of the core team there, including our incredible partners at ITVS who supported and literally made the project possible, and astronaut Cady Coleman and her family who played such a critical role in the film, made the Sundance experience a true celebration of what our team accomplished together.


Cady Coleman appears in The Longest Goodbye by Ido Mizrahy, an official selection of the World Documentary Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute. | Photo by Cady Coleman.)


What kinds of projects excite you?

Stories that show how strong, brilliant, resilient, and good humans can be – individually and collectively.


What is next for you?

Hopefully lots of things. Making films about going to the moon, Mars, and even exploring Earth. Graduate school maybe? Watching my four kids launch…to wherever they want to go, for sure.

Learn more about The Longest Goodbye on the ITVS website.


Katie Chambers

Katie Chambers Katie Chambers is the Senior Director of Community & Public Relations at New York Women in Film & Television (NYWIFT). She also serves as the Communications Chair of the New Jersey State Federation of Women's Clubs and is a freelance writer and digital marketing strategist. Follow her on Twitter @KatieGChambers.

View all posts by Katie Chambers

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