To boycott Russians, or not? In film and beyond, that’s the question.
By Alex Marshall
Russian filmmaker Kirill Sokolov has spent the past week distraught at the horror unfolding in Ukraine. Half his family is Ukrainian, he said in a telephone interview, and as a child, he spent summers there, staying with his grandparents.
His maternal grandmother, he said, was still living in Kyiv, the capital, “hiding from bombs in a bunker.”
Since Russia’s invasion began, Sokolov said he had signed two online petitions calling for an end to the war, an act that carries a risk in Russia, where thousands have been arrested for protesting the conflict, and some have reportedly lost their jobs.
Yet, despite his anti-war stance, Sokolov on Monday learned that the Glasgow Film Festival in Scotland had dropped his latest movie, “No Looking Back.”
A spokesperson for the festival said in an email that 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 movie was not a reflection on the filmmaker himself, she said, but it would be “inappropriate to proceed as normal with the screenings while the assault on the Ukrainian people continues.”
As the war in Ukraine enters its second week, cultural institutions worldwide are grappling with the question of whether to boycott Russian artists, in debates reminiscent of those around South Africa during the apartheid era, and calls by musicians, writers and artists to shun Israel in support of the Palestinian people.
Most attention has so far focused on figures close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, including conductor Valery Gergiev and diva Anna Netrebko, both of whom lost engagements at concert halls and opera houses this week. On Tuesday, the Munich Philharmonic fired Gergiev as its chief conductor.
But measures are also being taken against Russians with no apparent ties to their leader. In Britain — where a government minister this week published an opinion essay calling culture “the third front in the Ukrainian war” — a Russian state ballet company from Siberia and an opera troupe had multiple performances canceled.
On Feb. 28, the Glasgow Film Festival also dropped “The Execution,” by Lado Kvataniya, a Russian director whose work has been censored in Russia and who last week posted online about his opposition to both the war and Putin. (A representative for Kvataniya declined to comment for this article.)
Festival organizers and movie executives 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 Friday, says screenings of Russian movies at festivals create “the illusion of Russia’s involvement in the values of the civilized world.” It also urged distributors not to work in Russia. Several Hollywood studios, including Disney, have paused releases there, and a Netflix spokesperson said Friday that the streaming service had halted all future projects in Russia, including acquisitions.
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 Russia stop showing their work, “it’s like they shut our voice down,” he added.
“Probably 99% of Russian movies” receive funding from the Russian state, Sokolov said. “It’s very difficult to make a movie here without government sponsorship.” That includes many that are veiled — or even unveiled — critiques of life under Putin.
Several small film festivals have acted on the Ukraine Film Academy’s call, including the Black Nights Film Festival in Estonia and the Vilnius International Film Festival in Lithuania, which Monday dropped five movies from its program. One of them is award-winning “Compartment No. 6,” by Finnish director Juho Kuosmanen, which also received Russian funding. Kuosmanen said in a telephone interview that he accepted state investment in his Russia-set movie to ease bureaucratic difficulties. He understood the festival’s decision, and said he was “happy if my movie can be used in this fight.”
The world’s largest film festivals are taking a different tack. On Tuesday, the Cannes Film Festival in France said in a statement that it would no longer “welcome official Russian delegations, nor accept the presence of anyone linked to the Russian government.” This would mean Russia’s film agency could no longer have a pavilion at the event in which to host parties and receptions. A Cannes spokesperson said in an email that this would not mean a ban on Russian filmmakers.
On Wednesday, the Venice Film Festival followed, saying it would not accept “persons tied in any capacity to the Russian government” at its events. It added that it would welcome “those who oppose the current regime in Russia.”
Jane Duncan, an academic at the University of Johannesburg who has written about cultural boycotts as agents of political change, said those actions can be “extremely successful,” if there are clear rules around 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 arts institutions abroad hosting South Africans, she said. But later, she added, activists realized these terms were harming South Africa’s artists, who were already subject to censorship.
The boycott was softened in the late 1980s, so that artists could tour abroad and spread the message of the evils of apartheid. But, Duncan said, “the difficulty of a selective cultural boycott is ‘Who decides?’”
Although the Ukrainian petition that started the debate was unambiguous, there are still splits in Ukraine’s film industry about whether Russian films should be banned. Respected Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa — whose film “Donbass,” which is about Ukraine’s war with Russia in the east of the country, played at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival — said in an email: “We cannot 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 we are.”
Yet, for others in the industry, that line doesn’t hold anymore. Algirdas Ramaska, director of the Vilnius International Film Festival, said any film involving Russia-based companies would indirectly raise money for the war in Ukraine through taxation. “Total isolation” will make more Russian people rise up against their government, he added.
Ramaska said he desperately wanted to continue supporting Russian filmmakers, but how to do that in this climate “was a really, really tough question.”