The Moscow Metro is a completely foreign realm to me, yet my experiences on the New York Subway make many of its aspects familiar. The eight-minute screening of 'Quitting Time,' which revolves around a Metropolitan Transit Authority driver, immediately preceding 'Where are we headed?,' reminded me of this fact.
Visually, Moscow’s transit system could hardly be more different from the Subway. Stations are decked out with opulent stone flooring, elaborate chandeliers, rich jewel tones and bronze statues. Moscow’s modern cars are nearly as shocking to see, considering the New York system’s antiquated infrastructure.
However, although New York and Moscow's transit systems are over 4,500 miles apart and look nothing alike, the experience of using the transit system is mostly the same: dozing off while leaning on a loved one’s shoulder, watching the tunnel lights of the underworld flickering past the windows, an unexpected dance scene breaking out on the train.
In the film, director Ruslan Fedotow compiled a year's worth of footage from Europe's busiest metro system into a beautifully crafted look at everyday Russian life. The public nature of a metro system makes the intimacy of Fedotow’s opening close-ups of faces striking. With his zoom fixed upon a descending escalator, each step becomes a headshot. The film won Best Cinematography at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam.
Fedotow uses his discreet lens to capture moments ranging from joyous and comical to tragic and sorrowful. A child’s head bobs over a guardian’s shoulder. A cat stays perched atop a hat as its owner walks with confidence. A knock-off Santa Claus gets involved in a philosophical dispute. A child mouths an expletive.
When a red-haired woman stands with a rooster statue meant to bring good fortune, a series of emotions, ranging from curious to despairing, seems to unfold across her face. When company arrives to smile and take photos with the statue, she grimaces as though their cheerfulness is an insult.
Fedotow waited an hour for the woman to abandon her post so he could find out what was on her mind, he reveals in a Q&A session following the screening. “I was thinking maybe something is wrong with a relative, child or grandchild,” Fedotow says. “She just looked at me like, ‘What? Everything is okay. Bye-bye.’”
The director also had hostile interactions. On one occasion — the only time he ended up using footage from a friend, which was shot simultaneously to Fedotow's footage — an intoxicated man began to choke Fedotow on the train car during a national holiday.
Fedotow says he did not set out to make a political film, but current events seep in naturally. The captured patriotic displays and holidays feel different to him now due to the ongoing violence in Ukraine.* Despite director creating a purely observational film, all Russian screenings of the film have been canceled — perhaps for including footage of protests supporting Alexei Navalny.
While the film portrays the universality of people getting where they need to go, each face tells a different story. 'Where Are We Headed?' is an example of a simple concept ideally suited for its medium, as its tonal shifts mirror the passengers’. The film ends on a tender note with an older couple and their metallic butterfly balloon, symbolizing the hope to be found among the sea of faces and the complexity of daily life.
*Correction: A factually inaccurate statement about hostility toward the director was removed. The error occurred during the editing process.