The Moscow Metro, which originally opened in 1935 in Stalin’s Soviet Union, is more than just a means of getting from A to B. Beyond the splendour of the architecture that can be found in many of the city’s metro stations — Dostoyevskaya, Ploshchad Revolyutsii or Mayakovskaya, to name but a few — there lie the untold narratives of the people of Moscow.
Equipped with a miniature camera, Belarusian film director and cinematographer Ruslan Fedotow roamed the Moscow Metro in the hope of creating a snapshot of the everyday, unquestioned realities of contemporary Russia in his debut feature-length documentary Where Are We Headed.
Space of transit
Ordinary people are seen in a space of transit that is at once inhabited by strangers, enemies and friends. Out of the banal rhythms of escalators and closing doors, an extraordinary portrait of suppression, love, drunken song, prejudice, violence, laughter, love and misplaced belief emerges. The portrait is as varied as the people presented on the screen, but the result is cohesive and telling — beauty is punctuated with pain, and places of transit can lead to potential imprisonment if you’re not careful. Just as the camera often lingers, so too do the viewers’ thoughts, as the journey takes them from rush hour to the intimate stillness of a woman’s silent observation. From the onslaught of fleeting moments, chance encounters and snippets of overheard conversations, Fedotow is able to weave a meaningful tragicomic narrative that makes the viewer pause and reflect upon the intrigue of the seemingly mundane.
In his 1973 essay «Approaches to What?», the French author and philosopher Georges Perec called upon his readers «to question that which seems to have ceased forever to astonish us». In this vein, Fedotow takes the internationally familiar setting of a metro station, picks it apart and asks us to look at it differently, not only as a place of transit but as a space for quiet, introspective thinking.
As Marc Augé points out in Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, places of transit, which he refers to as «non-places», cause different modes of interaction between the individual and his or her surroundings. Neither the metro station nor the metro itself are the people’s end destinations. The non-place is transient, but it serves a purpose. Yet, that purpose is not the empowerment of the individual because when travelling, the individual becomes a transient inhabitant of a transient space — detached, part of the crowd, still in motion, on their way elsewhere. Faces, stares, carried objects, a black eye, a balloon, army uniforms: the impressions are endless, but only the strongest remain, and even then, they are ephemeral memories of a moment.
Fedotow is able to weave a meaningful tragicomic narrative that makes the viewer pause and reflect upon the intrigue of the seemingly mundane.
While Fedotow did not intend to make a political film, events such as the protests following the arrest of Alexei Navalny, the interaction between Russian paratroopers and two American soldiers on Airborne Forces Day, and the overwhelming police presence throughout the film make it hard not to recognize political undercurrents.
Even lighter moments, such as the comic discussion between a young woman and an elderly lady dressed as Santa Claus about the concept of the «vastness of the Russian soul», remind the viewer of the power of propaganda to influence personal belief systems. Other moments, such as the 2021 Victory Day Celebrations on 9th May, in commemoration of Germany’s defeat in World War II, bear new significance now that the world has seen how this day is now being used to lobby the war against Ukraine and demonstrate military power in Soviet-style military parades.
When asked about the filmmaking process, Fedotow said, «I just wanted to enjoy the moment, that’s it; be this invisible cinematographer dressed in black, doing everything on his own.» This solitary, observational, fly-on-the-wall approach allowed intimate, amusing and concerning moments to emerge and find their way onto the big screen. «Down there, people move in some kind of trance. I could be right in front of them, and they wouldn’t see me, Fedotow commented.
Rather than romanticizing the metro and elevating it to a hyper-realistic setting, as is the case in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie (2001) or making the metro a small part of the narrative rather than essential to it, as can be seen in Guillermo García López’s Delicate Balance (2016), Fedotow celebrates the metro as the silent host that bears witness to revelry, repression, romance and rebellion on a daily basis. As the passengers are finally seen emerging into daylight at the end of the film, a seed of hope is planted that light will triumph in these dark times.
In the meantime, the metros will continue, and the normality of it all will coax people into forgetting to question the way things are, but this film, if anything, is an appeal to people around the planet to become better observers, to take in their surroundings and to question them, because questions lead to ideas, and ideas lead to action.