Director Antoine Cattin Tracks ‘The Kremlin’s Tightening Grip’ With Kaleidoscopic Doc ‘Holidays’

Antoine Cattin Tracks 'The Kremlin's Tightening Grip' With 'Holidays'
Courtesy of Les Films Hors-Champ

Ever since his first trip to Russia in the late 1990s, filmmaker Antoine Cattin has always been tickled by his adopted country’s record number of national celebrations. Born in Switzerland and based in Saint Petersburg for the past two decades, Cattin has paid an up-close and rather bemused view to the parade of party days where people take to the streets, fireworks light up the sky, and the government sends often contradictory messages about national heritage and civic pride.

With “Holidays,” which is set over the course of seven of such public fêtes, and which will world premiere at CPH: DOX on March 29, Cattin both filmed and offered cameras to a Kazakh migrant, an aging public administrator, a xenophobic young activist, and a thrill-seeking urban explorer, making the film’s four characters both subjects and guides on a kaleidoscopic tour of modern Russia.

“The fact that I use these holidays as a framework is product of my outsider’s look,” Cattin tells Variety. “A native Russian would probably not think about the subject in a similar way. It might have taken a foreign perspective to turn the concept into a pitch.”

And as the eyes of the world look aghast at Russia’s military actions in Ukraine, Cattin believes that his outsider-insider film – which is in every way about the heavy hand of the Russian state on the domestic front, throwing bright parades and cracking down on those who turn out to watch – might ring all the more relevant today.

“It could be very interesting for Western audiences to see how people live here,” he says. “They could realize that these political problems have been going on for a lot longer. The governmental narrative and forms of control have been in place for some time.”

How did the project come together?
I started looking for funds in 2015, and then we shot for three, almost four years. The protagonists themselves would also shoot themselves independently, so that made even more material. I gave each one a Sony FX7, and besides that they used whatever they had on hand, sometimes even shooting on their phones. That left me with about 20 terabytes of footage. I could have easily built an entire film around each character.

What guided you as you sorted through all that footage?
I shot right until the beginning of the COVID crisis and then spent two years editing. I tried to put everything together in way that would hide who filmed what, to take all those sources and put them together as a single cinema verité kind of approach, just using their footage in order to have more intimate moments. The main theme of the film – which you could call the Kremlin’s tightening grip – was not something I had in mind while preparing this project. It came out in the edit. Of course I kind of pulled it toward that direction, but that was not my plan at the outset. That’s what I find very interesting: This film is really a document of a particular time.

Just on a conceptual level, “Holidays” is all about the relationship between citizens and the state. That is an inherently loaded topic, especially given the setting.
I’m not making propaganda. I’m just filming what’s happening [around me], and now is an interesting time. But I agree with Godard that every film is political. I believe that I’ve made a political film. Only it is to some large degree metaphoric. It’s not journalism, that’s for certain. Now I think this metaphor has become even clearer. For the government, a war is the biggest holiday of them all. That’s how I ended the film, and [as we can see from recent events] that idea has been confirmed.

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“Holidays” Courtesy of Les Films Hors-Champ

Apart from the title cards, which introduce each national holiday in a slightly tongue-in-cheek way, you avoid too much exposition.
I always hope to make film that can speak to Russian audiences as well as to Western ones. I think this film can do both – though for Western audiences, certain things are left unsaid and unclear. Take for example the character of the xenophobic girl, who is both a fervent nationalist and very much against Putin. You would need to understand the recent history of the Russian nationalist movement. Putin has enacted a policy of divide and rule, and the nationalists had been used to that effect, leaving them almost completely destroyed. Now they’ll certainly come back and be used to fight against the fifth column, which is to say, people like me.

That brings us to the unfortunate state of the world. What changes have you felt since you stopped shooting two years ago?
I couldn’t shoot this same film today. Consider the scene shot from the inside of a police station. You can no longer get such footage; the authorities would just smash your camera. When shooting at a demonstration right now, I could be taken away. I could be sent home. The Swiss consul told me that my position wasn’t so good. I’m not a reporter; I don’t have an official accreditation. I had always thought that better – I felt like a free atom, somehow completely integrated here, with people thinking I’m Russian, but without any obligation to any press outlet. Only that doesn’t offer the same protections. You tell them you’re making documentary movies, auteur films, and they don’t understand a word you say. So I don’t know. I have moments of total panic, but then I say to myself, calm down, you’re just a little guy, people don’t even know you exist, so continue doing your work and we’ll see.

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Courtesy of Les Films Hors-Champ

The fact that you’re Swiss, and that your financing came entirely through Switzerland is rather serendipitous given the ongoing Russian boycotts. “Holidays” might follow an easier path than others.
If it had even been partly financed in Russia [it could have been blocked], which tells how stupid this story is. I’m against [those boycotts]. Of course, I have filmmaker friends in Ukraine and I understand their anger and points of view. They say, “No fucking Russian, nowhere!” I spent five years doing this film, and just because it’s Russian I couldn’t show it anywhere? That’s really tough. And there are many people like that in Russia right now, people who have finished their work and cannot show it. That’s not fair – but on the other hand, when I hear from friends under bombs in Ukraine, I understand them.

On a personal level, are you worried about blowback after bringing a critical film to an international festival?
I am a little concerned. I had this panic about not going – or taking my family with me if I did. I realized we would be hostage in that case. It’s my choice to go, so why should they pay by sitting in a hotel in Helsinki or whatever? At first I decided not to, and then I said, why not? It’s part of my work, and I have to do it until the end, so why not go? I’m risking 0.01% that they don’t let me back in, but I don’t think that will happen. I’m a resident; I live here, so they wouldn’t have a legal right. The only issue would be the political side – and [on that front] I am a bit afraid.

Pardon me for asking, but what could happen?
I could be kicked out. I’m still this foreigner, and it would be easiest for them to just kick me out. Many friends have already left the country, and you can imagine what panic it brings when you realize that all your close friends have already gone. Still, I’m hoping to still spend some time here, to be honest. I’m not so eager to leave just yet.

Why’s that?
I would like to shoot what’s happening. I think now is the most interesting time to make documentary films, only I’m not sure it’s possible right now. The pressure is too high. Of course, you have the ethical question about staying in a country with such a government – but I’ve dealt with this ethical question throughout the past 10 years. I’ve done everything I could to support progress in this country. I’ve been to all the rallies; I’ve worked in Moscow on a project about Navalny; and I’ve seen the years go by while nothing changes. You cannot be neutral. Even being Swiss, you can never be neutral.

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Courtesy of Les Films Hors-Champ