In the first two weeks after Russia’s invasion in Ukraine virtually all major European film festivals released their statements concerning the frightful shift from peace to war in Europe. Venice, Cannes, Berlin, Locarno, San Sebastian, Karlovy Vary film festivals along with many others expressed their support to the people of Ukraine though a substantial part of every statement was devoted to a different question: how to deal with films from Russia?
Some, like Danish documentary festival CPH:DOCS, just increased the number of Ukrainian films. Baltic film festivals like in Vilnius and Tallinn were particularly supportive of boycotting, maybe because it is perfectly known in their countries how friendly Russia’s grips feel like. The most famous and renowned festivals chose the middle road, announcing that while the presence of official Russian institutions and delegations wouldn’t be welcomed as well as supporters of the regime, they felt it was not right to bar all Russian films and their authors. It would do even more harm because silencing all of them will affect dissident voices in Russia who have been resisting Putin’s regime.
Though different in nuances, all statements are strikingly identical, instigating a thought that we’re watching new creepypasta emerging from very unlikely sources – film festivals. Their likenesses though most likely originate from the same values shared by morally homogenous European film communities. They refuse to discriminate and silence those who put up a resistance in Russia. This ‘Russian question’ is maybe the most important practical part of every statement, since the part of standing with Ukraine doesn’t imply any explicit practical outcome.
Given general expectations that Ukraine won’t be able to withhold invasion for more than a few weeks or even days, one may suspect that most of the festivals didn’t expect to face the consequences of their statements and all its ambiguities since they were mostly limited by the time of war. Announcement of Cannes festival competition entries on April 14 provided at least some answers to what would be the practical outcome of such statements. So, maybe it is the time to look more closely at what would have been more of a polite gesture.
Those who are not accepted
Only a small number of festivals stated that they wouldn’t welcome supporters of the regime or official delegations. Among those who intended to bar some presence from Russia there are big names like Cannes, Berlin, and Venice film festivals. They are not going to accept ‘official delegations, institutions or persons tied in any capacity to the Russian government’ (Venice), ‘Russian institutions or delegations as well as supporting actors of the regime’ (Berlin) or, to put it simply like Cannes team did, ‘anyone linked to the Russian government’.
Unfortunately, festival statements haven’t specified what constitutes links with the government in any capacity. Apart from obvious cases of attending festivals by state officials, the most obvious criteria of this governmental link could be the money link. Though Russian cinema has an evolving film industry it still relies on state financial support, especially in festival cinema and débuts. Films with state financing can be regarded as official representatives of their respective countries because financing means that the state considers them somehow beneficial and in accordance with its values and principles.
Excluding such films would be at least logical and clear. It could be possible even to take an economical dimension into account more broadly and regard festivals as powerful platforms for promoting and marketing films of national industries. Russian film industry gives jobs, it pays taxes and spends money in Russia. If such activities could add at least to one more bullet shot at a Ukrainian citizen, they must be stopped. Otherwise, it’s choosing cinematic delights over the lives of human beings.
Of course, such an approach even in case of state-funded films is likely to be met with some reluctance by film festivals. It is more likely that artistic values of films prevail over economical ones in their opinion. Their economical weight is minor and insignificant compared to their cultural importance. Also, such films and their authors may be considered as resistant to the regime. It could be argued that taking the money from the state with one hand and giving films to Europe which are widely regarded there as critical with another one could be seen as immoral acts of conforming, though the principle ‘money doesn’t smell if it is put for the greater good’ or simply turning a blind eye to any questions of financing also must be taken into account. If it smelled, film festivals would have struggled even with considering films like Petrov’s Flu by Kirill Serebrennikov and Unclenching Fists by Kira Kovalenko (both Cannes-2021) that were financed by Kinoprime fund of now sanctioned Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich. The latter film even got a credit for personally thanking Abramovich for helping to make it.
Those who are accepted
Dissident status is not a requirement to be accepted in, let’s say, Cannes. Nevertheless, most of the statements obviously felt the need to justify the presence of Russian filmmakers by creating the impression that there are two distinct categories of Russian filmmakers. First ones are linked with the government and are supporters of the regime. Second ones are against war, put up a resistance to the regime, and don’t have by any means links with the government.
Apart from being critical, repressed and with no links to the Russian government these ‘good Russians’ have another venerable quality as vaguely outlined by some festivals. They defend freedom of expression. This reason can’t be rendered seriously. Even the outright propaganda art creations could be done, and were done, by authors that fully embraced ideals of their respective regimes. To say that their freedom of expression in every case was somehow limited would be a lie. To equal freedom of expression and modern European values is no more than a fairytale which is reminiscent of the Romantic ideal expressed by Alexander Pushkin in the play Mozart and Salieri as ‘genius and evildoing don’t go together’. By some irony, it’s the same great poet who ‘in particular can be credited with the first fully successful artistic formulation of Russian imperial consciousness’ as was written by Ewa M. Thompson in one of the first works on Russian literature from a postcolonial point of view (Imperial Knowledge: Russian Literature and Colonialism by Ewa M. Thompson, Polish-American scholar, in 2000).
Artistic values and aesthetic choices are deliberately put aside here since the statements themselves push political and humanistic approaches to the frontline. As well as the calls to separate filmmakers from films, because festivals themselves didn’t come up with any way to detach them on a practical level. By accepting films, film festivals welcome and celebrate their authors as well.
Those who are against war
Some statements stress out that dissident filmmakers from Russia demonstrate and condemn the decision of their country to start a war. WhichRussian filmmakers criticize their country’s aggression towards Ukraine? The very question is trickier than it seems. Statements could only mean the recent full-scale invasion. The Ukrainian point of view on when the aggression started is quite different. It started eight years ago with the Crimea occupation and war aggression in East Ukraine. Most film festivals have chosen to ignore this question entirely since 2014 and let works of even ardent supporters of Putin’s regime to be celebrated at major film festivals in Europe, like Dear Comrades by Andrey Konchalovsky in Venice-2020. The acclaimed director not only has close ties with the regime, he lauded the Crimea occupation and even filmed there according to his own words in 2017.
Though it is difficult to blame major European film festivals for the willing laziness with which they turned a blind eye to Russia’s direct involvement in aggression in Ukraine during the last eight years, it would be less strange to people living in Russia itself. Indeed, some of the most famous Russian directors, like Sokurov and Zvyagintsev, condemned what was going on then. It can safely be said that many renowned figures in Russian cinema were vocal against the war. Did it mean they were in confrontation with the regime? Not necessarily. Russia’s image as an anti-war peacemaker was thoroughly nurtured by centuries. It only fights when forced to defend itself according to its own propaganda (or to self-image). It just happens that it finds it necessary to defend itself on some other countries’ territories. So, anti-war messages if they were carefully constructed in vague terms and without clearly taking sides were not exactly against the regime as it is shown below in case of Kirill Serebrennikov
Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, anti-war statements in any form are not welcomed in Russia anymore. It can be safely said that the vast majority of Russian filmmakers and producers, especially those who intend to continue presenting their films anywhere except Russia, are against war. Therefore, they have to be rendered safe by European film festivals. It’s not clear, however, how exactly festivals are going to know their position
Those who fight the regime
As for those who were and are against Putin’s regime, festival statements for the first time allow more extended time-frame and can be regarded without reservations as had been noted earlier.
For the substantial part artists that are so revered in the West are not exactly some repressed cultural insurgents, or, as some festival statements call them bringing to mind Soviet vocabulary, dissidents. They are part of the cultural establishment in Russia. At least most of them were until recently. Some of them were tied to governmental institutions. Even the brilliant Russian director and humanist Alexander Sokurov, who more than once spoke against war in Donbass, is still a member of the most surreal entity in the structure of the Russian state, Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights. That example alone is able to disintegrate what’s been pictured by statements as a strict division between supporters of the regime tied to governmental institutions and dissidents. Case of Kirill Serebrennikov, whose Tchaikovsky’s Wife was selected in the main competition in Cannes, is of particular interest in this regard and shows the gravity of the problems with welcoming Russian dissidents and their films.
One of Russia’s leading theatrical directors and Cannes favorite is often called a political victim of Putin’s regime. Serebrennikov is known for his liberal views and spoke out against Crimea occupation by Russia in 2014, he vocally supported LBTQ-communities and so on. In 2017 he, then head of Gogol-Centre in Moscow, was arrested and charged with embezzlement. Such action by authorities was read as a tactic that hid true political reasons behind criminal charges. He was put under house arrest till trial where he was doomed, according to the political nature of his case, to be found guilty. He was indeed found guilty in 2020 and given a suspended sentence of three years. In November 2021 he paid the whole sum he allegedly embezzled. His criminal record was canceled and he was set free. On March 29th this year Cannes festival consultant Joël Chapron published a photo of Serebrennikov made in Paris indicating that he has made out of Russia.
After Serebrennikov’s arrest in 2017 it became a stable pattern to write in Western media about his critique of Russia’s occupation of Crimea. What exactly was said by Serebrennikov is nearly impossible to find except a brief comment to the National News Service Agency on March 3, 2014. Artist said that he deliberately doesn’t want to comment on what’s happening in Ukraine but he hopes that Russians and Ukrainians won’t cut their ties, because the two countries are brotherly nations. And he still wants to listen to Ukrainian music, visit his friends in Kyiv and to have a vacation in Crimea. Let the peace win, concluded Mr. Serebrennikov.
Such vague comment can hardly be read as critical towards Russian government. It actually has many traces of Russia’s political doctrine, which image itself as peace-loving and describes Ukraine and Russia as two brotherly nations, a notion not so much shared in Ukraine and often viewed as justification for Ukraine’s occupation and colonization. That vagueness can also be read as point of view of someone who is not into politics. However, when peace-loving Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 Serebrennikov protested. He was supportive of feministic group Pussy Riot persecuted in Russia. Reduction from protesting in 2008 to ambiguous peace calls in 2014 by Serebrennikov could be understood if we’d take into account the change of his position since.
In 2010 Serebrennikov directed a stage play NearZero in Moscow ‘Tabakerka’ theater based on a eponymous novel allegedly written by Vladislav Surkov, then a key figure in Putin’s administration. It is not certain that Serebrennikov deliberately sought favors from those in power, but his actions were definitely understood as such by some Russian journalists lie Oleg Kashin whose fate is more likely to be called typical of those whose activities felt like a pebble in a shoe by regime in Russia. When saying those words in 2014 Serebrennikov was already a head of the Gogol-Centre, a state-owned theater and was called Surkov’s protégé. He was not elected there as he should be but was appointed like some government official in 2012. Appointment met no objections from Serebrennikov himself. By March 2014 Surkov, often called the main ideologist of contemporary Russia and propagator of limiting freedom of speech, was Putin’s advisor on Ukraine and curated war in Donbass. And given Serebrennikov’s comments on touchy subjects such an attitude towards the regime could be called anything but dissident. It was rather conscious conformism rather than naiveté which is typical for Russian liberal public intellectuals who perfectly knew which lines they better not cross.
The words about the lines forbidden to cross are not my invention. They are taken from an interview of the most popular Russian film critic Anton Dolin after he left Russia in March 2022. According to him, it felt like an unwritten pact between power and people. Russians might have global standards of living but in exchange they would let the state do atrocious things to some other people. Furthermore, the state would draw the lines they better not cross or they would become people it does some despicable things with.
Serebrennikov case is just one of the most indicative among many liberals in Russia who chose life and work quality over their values during the gradual country’s descent into a more repressive police state since 2014. The irony of these critical voices goes even further than the case of Serebrennikov, who, consciously or not, made something like a deal with a devil, hoping he won’t pay the consequences, and offered his talent to be used by the state. Russia’s cultural politics have used any artist and their work as their achievements whether they are opposing the regime or not. One of the last cases would be comment by minister of culture of the Russian Federation Olga Lyubimova in 2021 expressing her delight with six films ministry has supported were included programs in number of European film festivals. However, three of those six films – Unclenching Fists by Kira Kovalenko, House Arrest by Aleksey German Jr. (both – Cannes) and Medea by Zeldovich (Locarno) didn’t have any visible state support including financial.
Today, when it has been more than a year since Serebrennikov left the position of head of Gogol-Center and left Russia, and since rumor has it that Surkov is put under house arrest, it can be said that the acclaimed director has no links to the Russian government. It is very unlikely that the Russian government in any form will own film successes for its own propaganda or praise Tchaikovsky’s Wife and its director. However, is he one of those who have never ceased to fight against the contemporary regime and cannot be associated with these unbearable actions, and those who are bombing Ukraine as Cannes put it? It would be sheer hypocrisy.
It is most likely though that this hypocrisy is born out of not enlightened determination but of blissful ignorance. There is an inexplicable gap between statements and reality concerning the presence of Russian films at major film festivals. On the one hand they are important as critical voices and their authors as oppressed resistants. On the other hand, festivals want to continue to show films by filmmakers who helped the current regime to develop, whose films have been nurturing its cultural politics, sometimes unwillingly, and have been part of its financial system feeding off it. This other side of the Russian film community and effect it might have is largely ignored and maybe there’s a simple reason for that.
In this light part of the Berlinale statement seems not incidental but the core of the problem. It says ‘Art and culture are key elements of democratic societies, and film festivals are places where artists from all over the world – regardless of their country – can showcase their work and enter into dialogue. It is only in open, creative spaces for reflection that (film) culture can continue to develop’. At first it seems a hasty mistake because it means that film festivals in Europe constantly invite films from countries, where film culture is not developing. But this is no mistake. These words just neglect anything apart from Berlinale and similar platforms as acting entities. They see themselves as one and only subject in this situation and that’s why they don’t see any negative effect of including Russian films. Because they won’t feel it.
But there is a self-consistency problem. If festivals want to support those who are against the regime, they have chosen the wrong people to salute. If they want to stand with Ukraine they must at least start a dialogue with it and not only see themselves as a platforms where film culture can develop. What film festivals mean is harmful not only to Ukraine and themselves but actually to Russia because such an approach only preserves things as they are. And above all this contradiction between what they see and what they do is harmful to film festivals itself showing their absence of ethics and lack of dialogue they so vigorously defend.
It is bewildering that in this situation ‘dissident’ Russian filmmakers ‘who are against war’ didn’t really boycott themselves and their films while the war was going on. Only a few younger generation filmmakers like Kira Kovalenko, for instance, expressed some understanding that they also can be considered a part of the problem and showed at least intent to bar their works during war. Filmmakers like Kirill Serebrennikov didn’t. Maybe it’s because adaptation has been part of their survival strategy for a long time. They place themselves and their work apart from any connection with reality or vice versa only when it’s convenient. And it is exactly what the majority of festival’s statements are doing. And by letting them be presented at European film festivals they just acknowledge that all that they really want is not to be disturbed.