Film still: Where are We Headed, dir. Ruslan Fedotow
Catching life on film:
Ruslan’s world of images
Don’t make the mistake of telling Ruslan Fedotow his films are beautiful. “For me, it’s really, really bad to hear that,” the young Belarussian filmmaker explains on Zoom one cold winter morning. “When you don’t have a really strong story, but you have a strong visual thing, it’s dissonant... and then what can people say after watching it? ‘It was beautiful’,” he says. “I’m a cinematographer who wants to slowly become a director, and then people tell you your work is beautiful, and it’s like...” Ruslan’s sentence trails off into a groan, and then he catches himself. “But also, I really can’t avoid the visual, because I start from it.”
While a vexed term, “beautiful” is certainly an apt descriptor for Ruslan’s poetic approach to documentary film, which has seen his last three titles meet critical acclaim in IDFA’s competition programs. Salamanca (2015) takes a lucent look at a quiet Mennonite community in Mexico, unfurling one man’s memories like a spool of thread, all shot in high-contrast black and white. Songs for Kit (2017) captures the joy, sorrow, pain, and spirit of an unhoused protagonist in Moscow, following her plight through observational camerawork.
Then, last November, Ruslan jumped past the 60-minute runtime with his new film Where Are We Headed, an ode to the Moscow metro that imagines the opulent underground as a universe onto itself, complete with Christmas trees, ass cracks, sleeping children, and surgical masks. The film, which saw Ruslan spend over a year in the subway armed with a miniature camera, garnered him awards for Best First Feature and Best Cinematography in IDFA’s new International Competition. Prior to that, the film was supported by the IDFA Bertha Fund and selected for IDFA Project Space.
Though all three films are aesthetically alluring, they couldn’t be more different stylistically. “I always try to try different styles,” Ruslan says. “With the first film, Salamanca, there weren’t characters; it was all situational mode. Then we decided to include the way of telling the story that was kind of semi-fictional, not documentary documentary. Then the second movie was straight character following. And here [with Where Are We Headed], I really didn’t want to work within a fixed narrative framework.” But stylistic choices aside, Ruslan’s films do have more in common than a strong visual language. Each title represents another step in the director’s journey toward touching reality, accessing some unnoticed truth, or in his words, “catching life,” a term that comes up repeatedly during our conversation. How to do that exactly, remains an open question. Still, there are some brushstrokes that Ruslan keeps coming back to as he fills in the big picture.
Film still: Where are We Headed, dir. Ruslan Fedotow
Embodied seasons, cyclical stamina
One is the flow of time, or to be more specific, patience and trust in that flow. When it came to making a film in the Moscow metro—which, Ruslan points out, historically replaced the church as a public space for people to gather and experience awe—he acknowledges that plenty of other directors have used this shooting location before. “But I wanted to make something—not deep—but spend more time there. Not one week or two weeks, but really follow the whole cycle of Russian modern life, societal life. I started with one year,” he recounts. The importance of a year-round shooting period for capturing the life cycle began already with his sophomore film Songs for Kit. “I started shooting the character in winter and it was a super hard time for her. Really, minus twenty and you don’t have a home.
She was living in a small place under a roof, and I remember this time when I visited her there and I couldn’t stay there. It was so, so cold. I heard the wind whistling and I don’t know how she survived there.” But Ruslan kept coming back. “During this winter, she told me many times, ‘I’m waiting for summer. Summer is my best time.’ So of course, I had to wait until summer. Just to see another life, and how she lives.”
And indeed, after the frost disappeared, another life was waiting for him and his camera. Like night and day, the film opens onto a different world in the summertime, as Ruslan’s protagonist bursts into song and dance at every turn, which, in large part, mirrors the jubilant, bustling Moscow that surrounds her.
“Probably seasons in Russia are very important. People act differently,” Ruslan says. “And of course, for Where Are We Headed, in the first description I sent to the IDFA Bertha Fund, I said that I really wanted to make a one-year observation, so there would be different celebrations and seasons. But the idea was also not to show what’s going on outside, like green trees, but that we can see and feel it slowly in what people wear. Clothes change, but we are still without sun, in the dark.” Ultimately, it was a conversation with director and film professor Marina Razbezhkina that crystallized his approach to the project. “She told me one phrase: try to film there and imagine that nobody lives above, people just live underground. The goal was to try and find a way of how to tell the story about the underground and at the same time, tell the story about what’s going on everywhere.”
Film still: Songs of Kit, dir. Ruslan Fedotow
A real life underground
The resulting film transports viewers to an ambient world with its own laws of interaction, all set against the grandiose architecture of carved marble and ornate plaster facades. Fluorescent lighting flickers over crowds of passengers piling in and out of their daily commute. It’s a view we don’t often get to see of Russia: the hum of daily life, as wheels speed along steel tracks, families get themselves in and out of emergencies, and lovers whisper sweet nothings in each other’s ears. Policemen, some particularly brutal in full riot gear, are a frequent fixture. Putin is a mediated omnipresence as well. Like with his previous films, Ruslan shot the entire thing himself, this time feeling the thrill of playing voyeur. “I wanted to try this style of being hidden. I like the moments when I was really close to people,” he says.
“It gives you so much adrenaline when you stay one meter near some guys, and they can’t see you. It’s super powerful for me to be there and feel that. And it’s a bit scary. Because if they notice you, sometimes people are aggressive, I don’t know what they could do to me.” Every scene, regardless of how tense, is notable for its observational camerawork. But in the end, it’s clear that Ruslan treats shooting as an entry point into some lived reality and finding a way to apprehend it. In that sense, images are just one vehicle for his documentary storytelling.
Echo, echo, echo
Sound has an important role to play here as well. And Ruslan, though a cinematographer by training, is keenly aware of its potency. “The sound should be rough and good at the same time. Otherwise, people won’t believe something genuine happened,” he says. “For example, in Salamanca, a lot of people from the documentary world said, ‘come on, this kind of sound is almost like a fiction film. You killed the documentary, you killed the real observational element because of the sound. It was so accurate, so detailed, so silent.’
With Where Are We Headed, the sound design takes another form entirely: bellowing echoes and ambient station noise are key in situating us diegetically, pulling the audience emphatically into the frame. The sound also lends important cohesion to the vast collection of scenes that dot the film, which, otherwise, could feel too disparate from each other. Here, reality becomes anchored sonically as well as visually, lending a distinct texture to the film that is almost touchable.
Of course, recording the sound was no easy task. Working closely with sound director Andrey Dergachev, the team spent five days underground, focused purely on recording. But even with the best equipment and techniques and over two notebooks filled with notes, Andrey and Ruslan conceded it’s nearly impossible to get good sound in the subway. “I got really crazy with it. I had to stop because I wanted more, more, more, more, and it could end up killing the documentary,” he says. “For me, it’s still a question of balancing how to have good sound without destroying the feeling of reality.
Film still: Salamanca, dir. Ruslan Fedotow & Alexandra Kulak
The new life of the visual
Exploring where beauty does or doesn’t fit into the swirl of sound, image, and story is nothing new in documentary filmmaking, but Ruslan sees that the terms of the game have changed. “For 60 or 70% of documentaries, it doesn’t matter how they look,” he says. “Now it’s changing, but five years ago, really people were focusing more on stories, people, and characters.” It’s a nuanced issue—one Ruslan feels strongly about in his work. On the one hand, a new wave of highly regarded fiction filmmakers are foraying into documentary. Even the past edition of IDFA could attest to that, he notes. “This year! Alice Rohrwacher is one of my favorite fiction directors, and I really enjoy that they’re doing documentary too. Pietro Marcello, Andrea Arnold... you know, I grew up to Fish Tank, and even she makes documentary. I really appreciate it,” he says. Lesser-known names are playing more on the edge of documentary and fiction now too. “For example, Lake Forest Park in the Luminous program,” Ruslan says. “16mm, observational, semi-fictional movie. Good! I really like that it shows at IDFA, and I really can’t imagine that seven or eight years ago.” But on the other hand, the interplay of documentary and fiction is coming up against a rampant commodification of the image. Ruslan speaks at length about the high-gloss visual culture that saturates Instagram and Netflix.
“Nowadays, documentaries have become more popular, but at the same time, they're popular because of Netflix, and that means a lot of more attractive documentaries appear,” he explains. “People are a bit tired of attraction-fiction; they like fiction that’s more real, that’s closer to documentaries. And then documentary is trying to be close to fiction, and they’re moving toward each other.
“For me it’s a bad thing that Vimeo, a lot of advertising, TV series, Netflix stuff, have become a lot about the visual... Sometimes I check the Instagram accounts of young directors who work on fiction, advertisements, and music videos. You see the screenshots, and you say wow, wow, wow! And then you go watch the music videos and after two minutes, you just close it. Because of what? Because everybody now is stuck on images, visual things.” For Ruslan, the cultural apex of the image only fuels his drive to rise above it. That means slowing down, returning to the realm of ideas, and trusting your instincts. “Sometimes you wake up one morning, and you think, I have to do it. When you’re thinking about it, you have to do it. You have to make it,” he says. Last time, that revelation took him to the endless tunnels of Moscow, where he knew plenty of life awaited him, as well as more opportunities to catch it. Where that fervor takes him next, will surely be worth the wait.