When South African director and cinematographer, Duran Levinson imagined his trip to Moscow, he planned a three-week tour to “escape the chaos” of his life in Berlin.
Instead, he stayed for two months: creating a film pulling Russia’s urban subcultures back to their rebellious roots amid ongoing protests on the streets of Moscow.
Blending urban aesthetics and electronic beats, The Kremlin Highlander is named for the landmark anti-Stalin poem by Soviet writer Osip Mendalstam. The verse is spoken over rapidly cycling images of socialist TV ads, tourist snapshots and protesters being thrown into the back of police vans.
Levinson was invited to Russia after shooting the campaign for Outlaw Moscow X Puma in South Africa in 2018. “I met with my friends and said I wanted to meet cool looking people,“ he told The Calvert Journal. He ended up diving headfirst into Moscow’s alternative scene — and headlong into encounters with the police.
“I was stopped by the cops and searched twice in just a few days,” he said. “I was just walking out of a metro station and a car pulled up. One thing I realised fast was that having lots of tattoos and how I dressed was making me a target. I felt like the police weren’t there to protect us.”
But it was after seeing protests unfold in Moscow that Levinson wanted to do something more. The demonstrators, who took to the streets after the Moscow government barred a wave of opposition candidates from local elections, included many of the director’s friends from the Russian street scene, including creatives working with brands such as Volchok and Outlaw Moscow.
By splicing together all facets of his tumultuous Moscow summer — the riot police, parties and tourist snaps — Levinson hoped to make a video that was both hard-hitting but relatable. A wry sense of humour permeates the film, pairing marching crowds with video game graphics: making the real life consequences all the more jarring.
“I want people to see what I saw as an outsider. In many ways, it reminded me of my home country, South Africa,” says Levinson. “Politics play an important part of these subcultures because our mentality is driven by politics and affected by the police.”
“I didn’t want to make just another travel video, but something with substance,” he concludes.