Filmmakers have been fascinated with altered mental states since the birth of cinema. Be it by drugs or influence of the divine, hallucinatory imagery serves as a fertile ground for visual experimentation. The 2022 edition of Berlin Critics Week featured a twin billing called “Tripping” about films that flip the tropes of the “drug movie” into something completely different. Directed by Adam Khalil and Bayley Sweitzer, Nosferasta: First Bite suggests political and social awakening as a form of an altered state. Ekaterina Selenkina’s Detours shifts the focus away from the visually surreal to the the quiet and menacing mundanity of the narcotics supply chain.
Detours begins with a computer screen navigating through a Moscow neighborhood on Google Maps. The cursor traverses the street and looks at the surrounding places. Several screenshots are taken and these respective places are revealed in the real world bit by bit. The eerie stillness and tranquility of these images and locations force viewers to pay attention to the details of the compositions. Why is a certain tree in the middle of the frame? Why does the frame cut off at that particular corner of the street? Is something being obscured or in the way of something else behind it? As figures move through the canvases, Selenkina dares the audience to find the protagonist, a young man with bleached hair who hides drugs in the locales for his clients to find.
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Detours takes the opposite approach of most drug world-related films. Aside from a single sequence near the beginning that features the strobing lights of a dance club, the 73-minute movie is almost completely populated with the cold, still and sterile environments of a quiet part of the city. Composed almost entirely of motionless establishing shots — the only things that move in Detours are the people and a computer or phone screen — Selenkina’s film about Russia’s authoritarian policies on drugs is fashioned into a game of hide-and-seek. Over time, viewers must play along and try to find the hiding spots, where things could be hidden, where figures could emerge. If the police come, what’s the quickest hiding spot or route of escape?
In Detours, the deliberate mundanity of public space augments the limited interruptions that are actually caused. In the evening, a hushed streetside has a few people walking on it, maybe from school, maybe from work. A loud bang shatters the innocence of the location. The protagonist jumps out of the bushes and runs down the street at breakneck speed. A sequence inside of a police station, where the protagonist is questioned and forced to take his pants off, gives a glimpse at the risks and humiliations of his business. Yet, there are circumventions galore. The city is big, there are huge spaces and Selenkina’s camera captures the cat-and-mouse game with an acknowledgement that people can and will find a way.
While Detours is concerned with the microcosmic world of drug dealings, Nosferasta: First Bite turns drugs into a metaphor that stretches centuries and empires. The title of the film, a pun between the Rastafarian movement and Nosferatu the famous vampire, looks at colonialism as a parasitic relationship where the “drug” is both a weapon of subjugation and of liberation. A young Carribbean boy washed up on the beach has his neck pierced by Christopher Columbus’ fangs (yes, Columbus is a blood-sucking vampire in the short film).
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The boy begins to speak to his future self and says, “There may be some things you discover that I have not yet known.” Nosferasta: First Bite sort of reclaims the term “woke,” which has lost a lot of meaning in its proliferation through social media and co-opting in political discourse. This wokeness can be metaphorically talked about as an “altered state” — an examination of history and politics that re-configures the way things are tied together to reveal a truth that was purposefully suppressed, and to transcend the propaganda of American educational and political systems and false histories.
The boy in Nosferasta: First Bite ends up channeled as a Rastafarian man who goes through the immigration process, becoming increasingly disillusioned with how convoluted it is. The juxtaposition of Columbus’ vampiric preying and the modern life of an immigrant join to form a paradox. The powerful invade the weak and build the systems that keep the weak out. Nosferasta: First Bite uses fish-eye lenses, cross dissolves and a swirl of colorful overlapping frames to signify shifts in ideas and mental states across generations and centuries. The same way our minds shift under the influence of drugs, so too do they shift under the influence of new information, new truths. The higher the walls, the taller the ladders people will build to overcome them. To reiterate a previous point, people can and will find a way.
Soham Gadre (@SohamGadre) is a writer/filmmaker based in Washington, D.C. He has contributed to publications such as Bustle, Frameland and Film Inquiry. Soham is currently in production for his first short film. All of his film and writing work can be found at extrasensoryfilms.com.