Ekaterina Selenkina’s feature-length debut film Detours is frequently described as “meditative” — an adjective too often used as a euphemism for “boring”. However, Detours is meditative in the truest and deepest sense of the word. It gives the viewer space to reflect not only on what they see on the screen, but also what happens beyond it.
The film’s portrayal of power relations in the streets of the Russian capital is as enthralling as cinema gets. Composed of static, wide shots of Moscow suburbs that are intertwined with mobile footage and virtual maps, Detours escapes the binary categories of fiction and documentary, experimental and narrative, making for a slow-paced yet gripping and emotional watch.
Formally, the film follows Denis, a twenty-something Muscovite who works as a “treasureman”. A direct translation of the Russian slang kladman, the job title refers to the couriers who deliver drugs to inconspicuous — often suburban — locations, so that they can later be picked up by customers who’ve placed an order through the darknet. The complicated system ensures that the courier and client never meet: a crucial safety condition in Russia, where laws restricting the acquisition, possession, and distribution of drugs are notoriously harsh.
The darknet, this complicated system of drug distribution, and its interaction with the urban space, all intrigued Selenkina, who first had the idea to make the film six years ago. Back then, she was still working with narrative cinema, and thought of telling a more conventional story. But while the director was carrying out her extensive research, her creative interests changed. She gravitated towards experimental cinema, which didn’t rely on a formal plot. She also noticed that her own view of the city had changed as she became more interested in these underground worlds. “I realised that it could be interesting to work with the viewer’s attention this way: to take a figure of a treasureman or treasurewoman and use this character to attune the viewer’s sensitivity to the landscape.” Abandoning a conventional structure allowed Selenkina to make a film that is “not just about zakladki [drugs delivered through darknet] but about the city in general, about systems, power structures, oppression and resistance.”
Keeping a loose focus on Denis proves an efficient and elegant way of exploring these power relations. By following a protagonist whose job is illegal and incredibly risky, the viewer’s gaze is inevitably drawn to Moscow’s sprawling systems of surveillance and the constant presence of police in the street. Other nameless characters appear, many of whom are also breaking the law in smaller, more banal ways: for instance by drinking beer in the street or barbecuing in public spaces. By drawing attention to their seemingly harmless actions, Selenkina also shows the arbitrariness of the law and its execution. Elsewhere, we see a single activist protesting the war in Ukraine, and a queer couple, whose kiss in an empty street is interrupted by a passerby. For them, just as for Denis, the streets of their city are a place where you must always be ready for violence.
Yet, Selenkina is cautious not to victimise those who are already vulnerable and marginalised: when a group of Central Asian immigrants appears on the screen, we don’t see them working, but playing volleyball on a sunny day. It is the only purely documentary sequence in Detours: Selenkina and her crew asked for permission to film them. Although this particular scene came together as a lucky coincidence, her choice of portraying immigrants in this way was very deliberate. “We filmed alternative scenes [with migrants in Moscow], and they all were about leisure, joy, and community despite being separated from your birthplace or family. It was very important for us to show people who are always being defined by their work [in this context].”
The film is unimaginable without the stellar camera work of the late Alexey Kurbatov, a talented cinematographer and photographer who passed away in 2020. Through the lens of his 16mm camera, the film’s landscapes gain the multidimensionality of a well-written character: this may be an architecturally and emotionally hostile environment that is controlled by visible and invisible power structures, but it is also home. Selenkina started working on the film while still studying in the United States, so she had to shoot in her summer break. As a consequence, the warm and lazy feel of a long holiday permeates the film, coexisting and contrasting with the piercing anxiety of the urban environment.
When asked if she was worried about provoking the Russian government, which has regularly punished artworks for depicting or “propagandising” drug use, Selenkina says she wasn’t too concerned — mainly because she didn’t think the film would get as wide a release as it has. “I think that people who are controlling the releases… well, you would just see two shots of the film and think, oh, okay, it’s some kind of an experimental movie that no one would care about,” she laughs. But the director has been proven wrong about the film’s appeal. Detours was nominated for the Grand Prize Venice International Critics’ Week at the Venice Film Festival, and most recently, has received the White Elephant Young Critic’s Voice award in Russia. The film is now shown in 20 cities domestically, and European premieres are also upcoming, which is an outstanding achievement for an independent experimental film. Selenkina hopes that it might set a precedent, showing that there is demand for less conventional cinematic forms, but still can’t quite believe the wide success of her own film: “It amazes me every day,” she says.