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Thursday, 12 June 2014

On the Current Moment in Russian Film: On the edge of a nervous breakdown?

Oleg Sentsov who is at the centre of an international campaign to secure his rights and safety.

A return to Russia after an absence of two months gives one an ambivalent feeling when one looks at the state of Russian cinema. There are still many things which inspires one here. The crop of films showing at the recent Kinotavr Film Festival in Sochi has had a good press even from some of the more respected film critics such as Anton Dolin. Sochi has also shown that if Cannes is a very male dominated affair, Russian festivals are a different matter. Eight of the fourteen films selected for the main competition at Sochi were directed by women and at the main documentary film festival Art Doc Fest all of the four main prizes went to women directors. Gender wise the Russian film industry seems to be more progressive than its foreign counterparts. And yet many of the main news stories on Russian film gives one greater cause for concern. If some figures have done as much as they could to salvage links between the Russian and Ukrainian film worlds, other cultural figures took a much more belligerent attitude with explicit support for President Putin. Even underground figures in the Russian art world have been divided over the conflict. The conflict has brought up new issues and affected the Russian film world even more directly with the detention of filmmaker Oleg Sentsov for what many believe to be spurious terrorism charges. The recent call by European filmmakers calling for an investigation into his detention, more information on his whereabouts and either his release or to be charged with a recognisable offence has an impressive list of names many of whom are well-known and respected in the Russian film community. The question remains, though, whether the air of hysteria hanging over this conflict will move the Russian authorities in this case.

An air of general clampdown in the media and in the cultural world as a whole has been a rather constant prospect for years now but things have certainly seemed to heat up most recently. A new law banning profanities in the worlds of theatre, film and literature seems already to threaten the Cannes awarded new film by Andrey Zviagintsev, Leviathan with a ban unless it be mutilated with cuts. As in theatre some intend to fight and others somehow to acquiesce, while there is a section of the film community around people like Mikhalkov who have prepared the way for this absurd new law. Bans on films regarding old national conflicts also seems to be back in vogue (by refusing to give them a certificate). This has happened to a film entitled 'Ordered to Forget' about the deportation of Chechens in February 1944. Politics and especially the culturally ignorant politics of Russia's Minister of Culture, Vladimir Medinsky, are intervening with abandon in cultural aspects. It is with some relief that some with the stature of Alexander Sokurov do publically speak out not just on their own immediate turf but even they have their words cut from the media.

The long-standing sore of the issue of the Cinema Museum and the fate of its director, Naum Kleiman has yet again come to the fore. Receiving notice of the termination of his contract at the end of this month it was reported by the website that he had been fired. This was then denied by the Ministry of Culture stating that it was a standard letter  but there seems little understanding of the long term future for Kleiman especially given the previous farce over the announcement of a new building for the Cinema Museum which then turned out to be yet another false hope. There certainly seems to be little hope that in the current set up of things that the Cinema Museum will be resurrected to its former glory. Instead, the Medinsky's and other cultural bureaucrats seem to be trying to make sure that this project (along with its legacy) be buried once and for all while the chance has arisen. However, as Naum Kleiman has mentioned in a superb article devoted to the question of government commissioned films the ability of the state directing the film world in the way it wants to has been tried before during the period of late Stalinism (he was argues convincingly that films like Battleship Potemkin were only made because there was a real social need for these films and that other film classics actually came more directly from society rather than the Soviet state). The kind of iron government control that Medinsky seems intent on imposing has always historically been a dismal failure and previously lead to the notorious film famine of the late 40s and early 1950s. There is little doubt that Medinsky will stand there along with Zhdanov as being a catchword for a Minister of Culture who do their utmost to create obstacles and attempt to destroy the healthiest forces in Russian culture.

Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky with Gerard Depardieu 

If the institutional and general political situation looks as bad as (or worse than) it ever was there is still no absolute certainty that this dire moment will last for long. As this years Kinotavr and many of the lesser known festivals do show the Russian film world doesn't lack talent. Russian cinema may well be on the verge of a nervous breakdown as Andrey Plakhov has argued today but there's still the hope that a new new wave and this time with a female voice may just be able to make itself heard.

Anna Melikian- one of the female film directors upon whom the hopes for a 'new new wave' in Russian cinema is pinned.  

In short Russian cinema seems to be swinging between a nightmarish despair over the institutional realities and the hopes represented in the superb quality of some recent releases which have proved strong enough to return to Russia the hopes of international awards at Cannes and which have marked out this years Kinotavr as one of the best. It seems still too early to completely write off the potential of an unexpected rebirth from the ashes of Russian film.  

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