Sarajevo Film Festival 2024

Holidays and power

RUSSIA / Cinematic mosaic of its public holidays as Kremlin 'closes in' on Russian society
Director: Antoine Cattin
Producer: Elena Hill
Country: Switzerland

Russia plays host to many holidays as its citizens embrace festivities all year round – from New Year’s Eve to Defender of the Fatherland Day, from Women’s Day to Russia Day, and whatnot. Antoine Cattin’s film succinctly titled Holidays (made in memory of late Russian filmmaker Alexander Rastorguev) recounts some of them by following four ordinary residents of Russia’s cultural capital of St. Petersburg. – an impish migrant from Kazakhstan who is never too far off from trouble, a young urban climber who scales the city’s numerous landmarks and roofs, a xenophobic trolleybus driver and a tough head of housing and communal services. Partly shot by the protagonists themselves, the film is a cinematic mosaic of the persons’ inner lives as they partake in the country’s assorted celebrations. However, in essence, the film is not about holidays at all. Rather, it is a study of a country beset by societal divisions and political woes, where a public holiday turns into a so-called instrument of power that typifies the nation’s ideals and aspirations.

Holidays, a film by Antoine Cattin
Holidays, a film by Antoine Cattin

New Year’s Eve

The documentary opens with the New Year’s Eve celebrations, «the main holiday for the majority of Russians». The New Year’s celebrations settled in Soviet lives in the 1920s as the Bolsheviks ushered in a secular era, effectively banning Christmas. «Instead of church bells and prayer, it is the 12 strokes of the Kremlin clock and the president’s speech». Kazakh man Dzhus is welcoming the New Year in the company of other migrants in the shabby living space they all cohabit. Modest food and drinks are laid out on the dastarkhan, common in Central and South Asia, with a tablecloth spread on the ground. Dzhus holds up a phone streaming a pre-recorded Russian President Putin’s New Year’s address in the absence of a TV set. As soon as the clock strikes 12, the Russian national anthem ensues. «Hurrah! The national anthem! Happy New Year!» the migrants exclaim, clinking cups and mugs. Dzhus then quickly rises from his seat, urging others to do the same. «When you hear the anthem, you have to stand up», he says but hears back, «It is only in front of a dead man that we must stand up».

Shortly after midnight, crowds of people in festive spirit swarm the streets of St. Petersburg. At the side of a road, a woman sells sparklers – three packs for 50 rubles – in her endeavour «to earn a million» to buy a flat for her son. Youngsters pose with Father Frost and his Snow Maiden assistant, Snegurochka. A reveller walks down the street, donning a bear costume. It’s all joy, chaos, and bouts of inebriation. Amid all that joie de vivre that fills the streets, we see a police bus departing, seemingly full of migrants. «Why were they arrested?» Dzhus asks. «I don’t know because they are not Russians», a young woman cries out. Her boyfriend is among those aboard the bus, detained for allegedly «introducing himself under a false identity», a police officer later claims.

The New Year’s celebrations settled in Soviet lives in the 1920s as the Bolsheviks ushered in a secular era, effectively banning Christmas.

«Just waiting for the war»

Dina, a trolleybus driver, also hits the streets amid the festivities, albeit with little enthusiasm. «There are more migrants than Russians», Dina laments. As she makes her way through throngs of people, she shares that she is «just waiting for the war», «a patriotic and liberating war». Working as a local trolleybus driver, Dina’s day routinely starts before the first appearance of light in the sky. She lives in a room in a shared flat, habitually referred to as a ‘kommunalka’, and participates in activism that is dominated by (ultra)nationalist sentiments and dissatisfaction with Putin’s migration policies. «Russians choose sports» is emblazoned on her white T-shirt. In a bizarre project fuelled by xenophobia towards migrants, Dina joins several fellows shooting a film «to encourage Russians to do sports» – all hoping to drive out migrants, alcoholism, and Putin. «We are tired of these alcoholics who drink to Putin», she explains. «On top of that, they often drink with migrants».

Defender of the Fatherland Day, celebrated annually on February 23, is Russia’s next cherished holiday almost unanimously lauded by its people. The holiday officially honours military servicemen and unofficially acts as a male counterpart of Women’s Day on March 8. The annual celebration seems packed with action, with an array of activities for all the attendees – be it a demonstration shooting carried out by young troopers, assembling and disassembling of Kalashnikovs, or various photo opportunities, with a howitzer or an S-300 missile system parked nearby. The state’s preoccupation with its military potency seems unwavering well into spring. May 9, which commemorates the capitulation of Nazi Germany to the Soviet Union, is marked in bold letters in the Russian calendar. Each year on that day, Russia holds a Victory Day celebration, parading its military equipment to the world and calling to war memories as if they were «the only ties capable of holding society together». Thousands across the country join in the Victory Day celebrations to honour fallen soldiers and lay carnations, symbolising eternal grief. Amidst the solemn parade, tragedies of humankind’s most brutal war are contrasted with callous displays of vanity of the victor, nurtured by the decades-long romanticisation of war. A woman is pushing a pram in the form of an armoured personnel carrier, with a red star bedecking the APC. There is a balloon in the shape of a T-34 Soviet tank floating in the air. And there are children dressed in historical military uniforms singing along to a Soviet-era victory song. Their attire is adorned with the black-and-orange St. George ribbons, contentiously associated in recent years with Russian irredentism.

«There are more migrants than Russians»

Women’s Day

With the melting of snow and spring blossom, Russia sets aside its military ambitions, though only in passing, for a holiday dedicated solely to women. First started in the West as a symbol of the female struggle for gender equality, Women’s Day has metamorphosed in Russia and other CIS nations into «a celebration of spring, femininity and beauty» that involves boundless flower giving and well-wishing. The film throws into relief this paradox by intercutting between a customary ‘show of appreciation’ on that day – women receiving bouquets and champagne popping – and demonstrators being dragged by police at a feminist protest. Back in the office of housing manager Anna Fiodorovna, male colleagues line the wall, taking turns congratulating women on the occasion: «May you always have confidence in tomorrow», one of them toasts as red roses wrapped in plastic pile on the desk.

The documentary turns full circle, ending with the New Year celebrations. Dzhus, now in a detention facility, welcomes the New Year with three other inmates. The inmates raise plastic cups at the 12 strokes of the clock. «The TV cannot even broadcast him», Dzhus utters as lines appear on the screen of a defective display, broadcasting Putin’s speech. After the film’s credits start rolling, we hear inmates banging on the walls and doors of their cells. «That’s it. That’s the New Year for you. How did you like the New Year, my friends?» Dzhus says with a wry chuckle.

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Sevara Pan
Sevara Pan
Journalist and film critic.

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