Beyond The Batman: Ukrainians Want to Ban All Russian Films. Festivals Are Unsure. (Column)

First came Disney. Then Warner Bros., Sony, Paramount, and Universal fell in line. From “The Batman” to “Sonic the Hedgehog 2,” major studio releases won’t open in Russia anytime soon.

It took a week for Hollywood to take a stance on the Russia-Ukraine war, but the Molodist Kyiv International Film Festival stopped accepting Russian films eight years ago. Many Ukrainians track that moment as the real start of the war with Russia, when the country annexed the Crimean peninsula.

“It made no sense to me to send money to Russia for these films,” said Molodist programming director Igor Shestopalov, speaking to me by phone this week. His festival celebrated its 50th edition in the Ukrainian capital’s Zhovten Cinema last year; on this day he spoke from an area of Western Ukraine, where he woke to explosions in recent days.

“We can’t say that culture is not political,” he said. “[Russian filmmakers are] supported by the Ministry of Culture. If you’re canceling Russia, you must do it all at once. You can’t say, ‘I’ll show their films, but I won’t buy their gas.’”

At the end of last week, the Ukrainian Film Academy posted a petition calling for a boycott of all Russian cinema. This unequivocal view was echoed by several Ukrainians still in the country who made time for me this week in the midst of harrowing, unpredictable circumstances. It stood in stark contrast to the international film community’s wider array of perspectives.

On Tuesday, a few hours before “The Batman” news, the Cannes Film Festival announced that it “will not welcome official Russian delegations nor accept the presence of anyone linked to the Russian government” unless the war ends “in conditions that will satisfy the Ukrainian people.”

That linguistic maneuvering left the door open for Russian films to play at the festival — even though most oare financed by government entities. The Venice Film Festival said it will “not accept the presence at any of its events of official delegations, institutions, or persons tied in any capacity to the Russian government,” but explicitly allowed Russian films and filmmakers.

The Glasgow Film Festival dropped Russian films “No Looking Back” and “The Execution” from its lineup days before Scottish festival began March 2. Its announcement met so much social media pushback that the festival sent out a second statement to clarify: “Both films have received state funding via the CF Cinema Fund whose board of trustees includes current Ministers of the Russian Government and the Russian Ministry of Culture,” it read.

TIFF, which circulated a statement to a few members of the media after I reached out, said that it would “continue to include films from independent Russian filmmakers in our programming” but “suspend participation by film organizations and media outlets supported by the Russian state, as well as Russian cultural ambassadors and delegations.” (I’m told that the “independence” of said films would be assessed case by case, but that the festival would be wary of any Russian films financed by its government — which, again, is most of them.)

Film at Lincoln Center, which has both New Directors/New Films and New York Film Festival on the horizon, took a more expansive approach. “Our support extends to ensuring that all voices in the film community critical of Russia’s actions are not inadvertently silenced,” the organization wrote me in a statement. “As developments unfold, we will vet all partners’ and filmmakers’ relationships to the current Russian state and evaluate our decisions on a case-by-case basis regarding the inclusion of Russian films into the New York Film Festival and Film at Lincoln Center’s year-long programming.”

Tribeca, which takes place in June, took the most circumspect approach: “Programming for this year’s festival is still open,” festival director and VP programming Cara Cusumato wrote me, “but as of right now, there are no Russian projects. At Tribeca, we’ve always believed in the changemaking power of artists and will continue to recognize and champion all voices for peace.”

Last week, MOMA’s Documentary Fortnight series hosted Russian film “Where Are We Headed,” a look inside the Moscow metro, which plays at the True/False Film Fest in Columbia, Missouri this weekend. That festival also hosts “GES-2,” a documentary look at a former Moscow energy plant turned into an art gallery. Artistic director Chloe Traynor told me by phone that both filmmakers planned to voice their opposition to the war before their screenings.

“We try to listen to the filmmakers as much as possible and take their lead on that type of thing,” she said. “The interesting work coming out of Russia is coming from independent filmmakers. For us, we didn’t want to punish — that’s not the right word — we didn’t want to hold individual filmmakers accountable for what the state is doing.”


Then there was the curious case of the European Film Academy, which last week issued a statement of Ukrainian solidarity. On February 26, EFA member and Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa published an open letter lambasting the Academy’s statement as “gibberish” that was “afraid to call a war a war.” Two days later he resigned from the Academy; on March 1 the EFA banned all Russian films from its annual awards — and Loznitsa doubled back.

“What is happening before our eyes is horrible, but I’m asking you to not fall into craziness,” he wrote to the EFA, citing several Russian directors who wrote him with their concerns about the war. “We must not judge people based on their passports. We can judge them on their acts.”

The Ukrainians I asked about Loznitsa’s reversal were not pleased.

“Sergei is delivering his messages sitting in his beautiful flat in Berlin,” said producer Denis Ivanov, founder of the Odessa International Film Festival. He spoke to me by phone from the outskirts of Kyiv. “He was educated in Moscow in the main educational institute for filmmakers. Then he moved to Germany. He has a Ukrainian passport, but I don’t think he’s appointed to speak on behalf of Ukrainians. He’s a person of Russian culture. I would say to him that he can come to Kyiv and write his messages here, where we’re surrounded by Russian troops — then I think his message would be different.”

Ivanov produced Loznitsa’s 2018 dark comedy “Donbass,” the country’s Oscar submission. Last week, when I wrote about the movie, it had never secured a proper U.S. release; since then, it has been acquired by Film Movement and will open at New York’s IFC Center April 8. “Donbass” is a fascinating window into the corruption of that separatist region, which Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin used as an excuse for the invasion last week. In an interview ahead of his public statements, Loznitsa told me that “Putin has failed to split the country” and predicted the war would result in “the end of Russia.”

Ivanov said he wasn’t looking to start a public feud with the director, but could not tolerate any middle ground. In an open letter posted to Facebook, he explained his stance. “I think some festival selectors, film professionals and cultural managers just do not get what is happening in Ukraine,” he wrote. “It’s not the right time for red carpets for our dear Russian colleagues.”

Producer Denis Ivanov in Kyiv last month.

Artem Galkin

Finding anyone in the Russian industry to address these questions was difficult. A few Russian distributors would only speak to me off the record for fear of reprisals from the government, which banned the word “war” in national media last week and shut down Facebook. They expressed frustration that they were suffering for a war that they did not support, even if they felt unsafe saying so in a public forum.

I did hear from Oscar-nominated producer Alexander Rodnyansky (“Leviathan”), a Ukrainian who has been working in Russia for 20 years. (His company, AR Content, signed a first-look deal with Apple TV+ last year.) Rodnyansky cited many Russian directors who condemned the war, but not all do.

“There are also those who are very vocal with their support of Putin and what they see as Russia,” he explained by email. “They do not say they are pro-war per se, they are using the same propaganda vocabulary that has been poisoning our nation for decades. Those are the voices of greed: It is rather obvious that in the next couple of years only state will be giving money to filmmakers and those ready to accept need to show their color now.”

He did not support a complete ban on Russian content worldwide. “I understand the emotion,” he wrote, “but I believe the best and most effective way to show solidarity to Ukraine and its brave people is to also support Russian filmmakers who openly oppose war.”

Later, I spoke with Nadezda Motina, a Russian distribution veteran in Moscow who launched Arna Media last year with plans to release 12 films this year. As the ruble plunged from international sanctions and American companies pulled away from existing negotiations, she was uncertain about the future but still hoped to attend Cannes and buy films.

“I’m glad to see that festivals have different positions,” she said. “I feel that art is a form of free speech and should not be limited. We’re all trying to do what we can to establish peace. Unfortunately, we do not have many things that we can do. If the world bans everything from Russia forever, is this the best way to stop the war? That’s the real question.”

Arthouse cinema in Russia is healthy, even during the pandemic: Last year’s Oscar winner “Another Round” grossed $1.3 million, the highest of any Scandinavian film in the country. A24 has done good business with Russian distributors, who released “C’mon C’mon” to a solid reception; director Ti West’s A24-produced horror movie “X” is still slated to come out in the country.

However, at least one American sales agent whose team ceased business dealings with Russia this week was unsympathetic to struggling distributors. “Taxes have to be paid, that goes to the government,” the agent told me. “If we can help make life harder, maybe Putin goes away faster.”

I asked Ivanov to address the distinction some festivals make between “Russian filmmakers” and “Russian delegates.” He didn’t see one.

“The situation is absolutely black and white,” he said. “Putin’s Russia is a fascist regime doing heinous acts to Ukrainians. If they want to represent the flag of Putin’s regime and then be on the red carpet while their Ukrainian colleagues serve on the frontlines or escape the country, then they are not supporting us. If I was Russian, I wouldn’t be in those places. I would say that my country fucked up and, in protest, that I wouldn’t take part in promotional events for my film.”

He knows some might see such an unequivocal maneuver as censorship — an irony, he said, since Russian films are subjected to censorship by their own government. “If they’re shooting their film, they’re working with the regime and they’re already compromised.”

It was a powerful assessment coming from a man who, just a few days earlier, took his children to the border so they could escape the country before he returned to join the fight. He was preparing to move a group of women to shelter, but said he was looking for “a more effective coalition” where he could volunteer.

The premiere of “Rhino” in Kyiv last month.

Artem Galkin

Ivanov is reeling from the rapid changes around him. Two weeks ago, he attended the national premiere of “Rhino,” which he produced, in Kyiv’s House of Cinema. Today, the Odessa Opera House — which hosts the Odessa International Film Festival’s opening night —  is barricaded and looks like it did more than 80 years ago when the country on the brink of Nazi invasion. (At this writing, Russian ships were hovering close to Odessa in an attempt to overtake the major port city.) In recent years, Ivanov launched a traveling children’s festival that migrated online during the pandemic. That much, he said, could continue in some fashion.

Addressing the minutiae of festival programmings created a profound sense of dislocation, but our conversation brought me back to the ultimate conundrum: Can any punitive measure make a difference?

If anything, they serve as an extension of the protests sweeping the globe, including the ones at Russia that have put citizens literally in the line of fire. “This is quite hard,” Shestopalov told me, recalling recent highlights of Russian cinema like “Petrov’s Flu,” which premiered at Cannes last year. “Russians still make good films. There are good directors and good people there. They could come here to shoot, but not with the flags of their country.” (“Petrov’s Flu” director Kirill Serebrennikov was placed under house arrest in 2017 under trumped-up charges by the state; he remains unable to leave the country.)

Ivanov echoed Shestopalov’s sentiment. “I have nothing against Russian filmmakers,” he said. “They don’t have a voice, they can’t exist without state support and oligarchs controlled by the state and supported by the state. So they are not a lot of filmmakers who can really raise their voice against this dictatorship. I think this manipulation that Russia has a beautiful film culture just covers up their war crimes.”

I met Ivanov through Kyiv-based film critic Serhii Ksaverov, who helped craft a letter from the international critics group FIPRESCI declaring that it would not participate in festivals “organized by the Russian government and its offices.” Ksaverov said he read my column last week about the dearth of support from U.S. distributors for Ukrainian films with great interest.

“As I see it from Ukraine,” he wrote me, “the promotional challenges in the U.S. from a number of countries are the same: 1. It doesn’t have entertainment value. 2. It depicts some unknown third-world-aboriginal problems. 3. It has subtitles. 4. It’s not American. 5. It’s not American.”

This points to a broader challenge: The entertainment industry doesn’t know what they don’t know. Ukraine is far from the only country suffering from abuse by a corrupt government. Should film institutions also ban delegates from China, a totalitarian regime that regularly commits human rights abuses and has supported Putin over the war?

The abrupt global sensitivity to this war reflects a Western gaze that sees Ukrainians as more “civilized” than other nations afflicted by such conflicts. Last summer, as the U.S. pulled out of Afghanistan and the Taliban overtook the country, I corresponded with despondent Afghan festival programmers like those at the Herat International Women’s Festival, who hoped to continue the programming that blossomed under nascent democracy under exile. As Afghanistan’s now-oppressed country recedes from headlines, there’s no industry movement to support them.

A major entertainment organization could redefine itself in charitable terms — looking at you, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — to address human rights crises on a rolling basis rather than wait for the next invasion to improvise another response.

For now, we must grapple with the immediate repercussions of war, some more pressing than others. “In any case,” Ksaverov wrote me from Kyiv, “I guess we’ll have to wait for ‘The Batman’ a little bit longer than expected.”

As the situation in Ukraine continues to unfold, readers who want to donate might consider their options at this link. And even as I look ahead to other issues facing the film community, none of which seem as pressing as this one, I encourage feedback on better ways to address the questions raised in this column or other areas worthy of the same scrutiny: [email protected]

Browse previous columns here.

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