The history of the British authorities and Russian cinema has been, it must be said, a rather shameful one. To detail, perhaps, the most obvious example, Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin was not only banned for almost three decades it then remained as X-rated for another three. In many ways Britain has never been one of the countries most open to Russian cinema.Outside narrow academic circles, Russian films rarely get noticed and even more rarely get shown. An anecdotal example was that of my local 'independent' cinema in the city of Brighton (the Duke of Yorks). An example sufficient to highlight the kind of difficulty one has in bringing Russian film to the UK. Brighotn's International Film Society after a few months decided that it was high time to show a Russian film and after consulting me drew up a list of ten films that the cinema could choose from to be shown at the society's monthly screening. Instead of picking from this ten it insisted on showing the only Russian film (Sokurov's Russian Ark) that had previously passed through its screens in its previous years. Russian film was still, in the early 2000s, practically unavailable outside the two or three films that would be shown at, say, the London Film Festival.
The Russian diaspora which has descended on the UK in recent years has led to some improvement. A Russian Film Festival now runs annually in London and under the previous London mayor, Ken Livingstone, a Russian Winter Festival involving cultural events and occasional film showings took place. Yet the UK still is a country whose reception of Russian cinema is far behind that of other cultures. Only last year a UK guest (and former director of the Edinburgh Film Festival) at the Odessa Film Festival was asked to name a Russian-language film that had impressed her recently. Yet the questioner was left unsatisfied because not one name came to mind to this British film critic. A rather similar scene greated the press conference of the very first Russian Film Festival in London. Pavel Lungin was practically begging the journalists at the press conference to ask the Russian panel about the films on show. Not one UK journalist could oblige him.
The Russian Film Festival seems, at least to have survived and thrived and Russian book fairs appear to have some kind of success in London (though whether the main pundits are British russophiles is doubtful- at least judging from the first Russian Film Festival 90% of atendees were Russian emigres). The odd Russian cultural centre like, for example, Pushkin House does some valuable work and the recent appearance of the Calvert Journal finally provides some detailed coverage of Russian culture to a larger audience. However, it now seems that the Britain embassy in Russia is stepping in to return Britain back to the 'good old days' of the Iron Curtain.
One of Russia's most respected documentary film-makers has felt the full bureaucratic force of Britain's visa clampdown making Russia's system seem much liberal in comparison. While the UK hasn't, it seems, stooped to deny Vitaly Mansky a visa in practice, it seems to wish to force him to cancel all other travel plans in order to visit the London Film Festival. In the case of Mansky an unrealistic choice given the fact that he is one of Europe's top documentary film-makers and will, of course, be invited to many festivals. This may be a rather insignificant detail on the UK's steady path to cultural isolationism and yet an indicative one. Mansky is not alone in terms of significant cultural figures from Russia being subjected to humiliation at the hands of British philistines at Smolenskaya Naberezhnaya. A number of respected Russian cultural figures have commented on the UK's arcane and insulting visa process in which passports are surrendered to the British embassy for up to a month. Vitaly Mansky appears to be in good company though. According to Claire Kitson's book on Yuri Norstein the worldwide acclaimed animated film-maker was subjected to a long search and interrogation by British customs on his trip to the UK.
The question has already been posed whether as a protest Mansky should not withdraw his film from the London Film Festival. It seems as though it's the Brits who look just like the officious, bureaucratic boors that they so like to portray Russians as. A case of Welcome Russian Culture, or No Unauthorized Access?