Russian filmmakers and other artists face the boycott of Ukraine
Russian filmmaker Kirill Sokolov has spent the past week shattered by the horror unfolding in Ukraine. Half of his family is Ukrainian, he said in a phone interview, and as a child he spent summers there, staying with his grandparents.
His maternal grandmother was still living in Kiev, he said, “hiding from the bombs in a bunker”.
Since the start of the Russian invasion, Mr Sokolov said he had signed two online petitions calling for an end to the war, an act which carries a risk in Russia, where thousands of people have been arrested for having protested against the dispute, and some reportedly lost their jobs.
Yet despite his anti-war stance, Mr Sokolov learned on Monday that the Glasgow Film Festival in Scotland had scrapped his latest film, ‘No Looking Back’.
A festival spokeswoman said in an email that Mr Sokolov’s film – a comedy about a mother and daughter trying to kill each other – had received Russian state funding. The decision to exclude the film was not a reflection on the filmmaker himself, she said, but it would be “inappropriate to proceed normally with screenings as the assault on the Ukrainian people continues”.
As the war in Ukraine enters its second week, cultural institutions around the world are grappling with the question of whether to boycott Russian artists, in debates reminiscent of those around South Africa in the apartheid era, and calls from musicians, writers and artists to shun Israel in support of the Palestinian people.
Festival organizers and movie directors have been considering protest actions since shortly after Russia’s invasion last week, when the Ukrainian Film Academy launched an online petition calling for “a boycott of Russian cinematography”.
The petition, which had more than 8,200 signatures on Friday, claims that screenings of Russian films at festivals create “the illusion of Russian involvement in the values of the civilized world”. He also urged distributors not to work in Russia. Several Hollywood studios, including Disney, have suspended releases there, and a Netflix spokeswoman said Friday the streaming service has halted all future projects in Russia, including acquisitions.
Mr Sokolov, the Russian director, said he accepted the Glasgow festival’s decision, although he found it “really strange”. Many Russian filmmakers are critical of Russian society and politics, he said; if festivals outside of Russia stop showing their work, “it’s like they’re shutting our voices,” he added.
“Probably 99% of Russian films” receive Russian state funding, Mr Sokolov said. “It’s very difficult to make a film here without government sponsorship.” This includes many veiled – or even unveiled – criticisms of life under Mr Putin.
Several smaller film festivals have responded to the call from the Ukraine Film Academy, including the Black Nights Film Festival in Estonia and the Vilnius International Film Festival in Lithuania, which on Monday withdrew five films from its schedule. One of them is the award-winning film “Compartment No. 6” by Finnish director Juho Kuosmanen, which also received Russian funding. Mr. Kuosmanen said in a telephone interview that he accepted state investment in his film shot in Russia to ease bureaucratic difficulties. He understood the festival’s decision and said he was “happy if my film can be used in this fight”.
The world’s biggest film festivals are taking a different approach. On Tuesday, France’s Cannes Film Festival said in a statement that it would “no longer host official Russian delegations, nor accept the attendance of anyone connected to the Russian government.” This would mean that the Russian film agency could no longer have a pavilion at the event to organize parties and receptions. A Cannes spokeswoman said in an email that this would not mean a ban on Russian filmmakers.
On Wednesday, the Venice Film Festival followed suit, saying it would not accept “persons connected in any capacity with the Russian government” at its events. He added that he would welcome “those who oppose the current regime in Russia”.
Russo-Ukrainian war: what you need to know
Jane Duncan, an academic at the University of Johannesburg who has written about cultural boycotts as agents of political change, said such actions can be “extremely successful”, if there are clear rules about who they target. The cultural boycott of South Africa, which activists first called for in 1958, was initially a total ban on foreign artists working in the country and on overseas art institutions hosting South Africans, a- she declared. But later, she added, campaigners realized the terms hurt South African artists, who were already subject to censorship.
The boycott was softened in the late 1980s, so artists could tour overseas and spread the message of the evils of apartheid. But, Duncan said, “the difficulty with a selective cultural boycott is, ‘Who decides?'”
Although the Ukrainian petition that started the debate is unambiguous, there are still divisions in the Ukrainian film industry over whether to ban Russian films. Respected Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa, whose film ‘Donbass’ about Ukraine’s war with Russia in the east of the country screened at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, said in an email: “We cannot not judge people by their passports”.
“When I hear calls to ban Russian films, I think of my Russian friends – decent and honorable people,” he added. “They are victims of this war, just like us.”
Yet for others in the industry, that line no longer holds. Algirdas Ramaska, the director of the Vilnius International Film Festival, said any film involving Russian-based companies would indirectly raise funds for the war in Ukraine through taxation. “Total isolation” will inspire more Russians to rise up against their government, he added.
Mr Ramaska said he desperately wanted to continue supporting Russian filmmakers, but how to do that in this climate “was a really, really difficult question”.