Freedom, limited

    RUSSIA / The authoritarian stranglehold of the Kremlin closes in across national holidays in contemporary Russia.
    Director: Antoine Cattin
    Producer: Elena Hill
    Country: Switzerland

    Antoine Cattin, the Swiss-born director who has been living in both Russia and Switzerland for the past two decades, former editor of the journal Hors-Champ and assistant director to Sergei Loznitsa, didn’t have much luck with his latest film project. First, there was Covid, and then Russia invaded Ukraine, which was followed by the ongoing boycott of the aggressor. All these delayed the film’s release. Fortunately, Cattin emphasized in a recent interview his financing came entirely through Switzerland, so he avoided the risk of the film being blocked. He started preparing for the film in 2015, and his documentary had its world premiere at this year’s CPH:DOX. The tragic circumstances also worked in favour of the film. It was filmed before Russia attacked its neighbour, and some scenes, particularly those depicting the rising militancy of the police forces, the underlying subject of the film, could not have been filmed today. Therefore, the film’s topic, the tightening grip of the Russian state on its citizens before the war, is timely and relevant.

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


    The film is located in Saint Petersburg and focuses on the celebration of seven major Russian state holidays. Throughout the film, we observe huge crowds celebrating. They do not make much difference, and the underlining “festive” feeling and movement of the mass are the same, regardless of what they celebrate: the change of the calendar with the arrival of the New Year, religious events with the baptism of Jesus; historical events like Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany in World War II with the Victory Day; political events like women obtaining more rights with the International Women’s Day; or the purely natural event like White Nights, the day with the longest, 24hour lasting, daylight. The playful music and, from time to time, increased, burlesque-like film speed further stress the link with the French comedian and film director Jacques Tati’s directorial debut Jour de fête (The Big Day, 1949), already announced in the original version of the title, Jours de fête.

    Also Read: Holidays and power


    The topic of holidays, however, also has a deep political signification that spans from the early days of the worker’s movement to the liberal capitalism of today. Here, another French classic comes to mind, Freedom to Us (À nous la liberté !, 1931) by René Clair, the first French sound film. The film became famous due to the apparent similarities with the celebrated comedy Modern Times by Charlie Chaplin, released five years after Freedom to Us. It is, however, important to note that when the producers of his film filed suit, the director Clair refused to join the suit, saying that he considered it a compliment if Charles Chaplin based his film on René Clair’s. The two films also end differently. Unlike Chaplin, Clair is an optimist. In his film, which itself was an innovation as it introduced sound film technology, he envisioned a society where technological development would finally lead to a situation where the work would be done by machines and workers would have all the time to enjoy holidays every day.

    Eventually, Chaplin’s pessimism was proved right, and this film makes this very visible. The traditions of practising holidays in the former fortress of socialism do not differ much from its capitalist counterpart. The sinister presence of the police forces and state control also underlines that, contrary to the Bachtinian, carnivalesque perception of holidays as moments when common people break free, the state enters into the private lives of its citizens with the holidays as well by defining rituals such as military parade and in many other subtler ways. Cattin very skilfully highlights the power of the state that does not only regulate work but leisure and presumably free time as well. This condition, described by contemporary political philosophers as post-Fordism, intensified with the use of computers for both work and leisure, and even further with the work from home – indicating, similarly to Cattin’s film, that the distinction between capitalism and communism has been out of date for a long time.

    The traditions of practising holidays in the former fortress of socialism do not differ much from its capitalist counterpart.

    A look from below

    The war and the ongoing boycott of the aggressor did not put an end to curiosity. One of the main advantages of this film is that it provides an insight into what is happening on the other side. It was filmed before Russia attacked Ukraine, but it will still satisfy curiosity. Particularly valuable for this is the cinéma vérité approach. The director smartly entwines his outsider look with the material which the film protagonists themselves shoot independently for almost four years. He gave each one a portable camera, Sony FX7. Additionally, they used whatever they had on hand, sometimes even shooting on their phones. The four protagonists stem from diverse parts of Russian society: a Kazakh migrant, a conservative public administrator, a xenophobic young activist, and a thrill-seeking urban explorer. Each of them contributed a very particular, unique view. Contrary to social media practices, they seem not to tend to embellish themselves in their self-presentations. On the contrary, they seem to seek to be as open as possible, so the viewers face outstandingly forthright expressions of their controversial attitudes, from the violence and sexism of the migrant worker and the racism of the activist to the autocracy of the public officer and the audacity of the urban explorer. In this way, they provoke and thus make visible the presence of the police, contributing to an almost tactile representation of how the state’s grip, militarist and repressive, is tightening throughout one year, from one New year’s celebration to the other.

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    Melita Zajc
    Melita Zajc
    Our regular contributor. Zajc is a media anthropologist and philosopher.

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