Russian Filmmaker’s Urgent Plea On Ukraine Crisis And Boycott – Guest Column

Editors note: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has had tragic consequences for the Ukrainian people, and the wider ramifications of the conflict are only beginning to be understood. As the West imposes economic sanctions on Russia, the country is facing a period of isolation unseen since the Cold War. Deadline invited one high-profile Russian producer to pen a column discussing their perspective on the situation. At their request they are being kept anonymous for fear of reprisal from Putin’s government as it cracks down on free speech.

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Just over two weeks ago, for most of the film industry in Russia, the entire world collapsed. It goes without saying that this is absolutely nothing compared to the collapsing physical world of our neighbors and friends in the Ukraine, where many of us have family and loved ones, who are being bombed as we speak. It doesn’t even come close.

In this war – and those in Russia with at least half a conscience call it just that, albeit sometimes in a whisper, so as not to be prosecuted by the brutal new laws forbidding anything other than “special operation” – there is clearly only one aggressor. The overwhelming feeling is that the war is being fought on two fronts. One on the territory of Ukraine, whose unity and perseverance during such dark times should be the envy of those Russians who disagree with the actions of their government. And then there is the other war, the one waged by the government of Russia against its own people, against those who aren’t the everyday victims of the fast-growing and dominant propaganda machine — those who are sharing Internet memes of the new cover of Leo Tolstoy’s Special Operation & Peace. Those who take to the streets to protest, risking up to 15 years in a prison cell just for taking a peaceful walk. Those who bought a one-way ticket in one of the few remaining directions of Istanbul, Yerevan or Helsinki, to ponder over their next steps, and at least dream of a life elsewhere, with only a few hundred dollars in their pockets, hastily converted from their now almost worthless rubles.

We are all very much patriots. Everything an entire generation of us has achieved in the last 10 years, the bridges built with colleagues in the U.S. and Europe, were all in the interests of creating long-term bonds and alliances, but also ultimately in the interests of living in a better Russia, one that had truly become part of a global film industry.

That Russia is gone, wiped out in an instant, along with the shattered dreams of an entire generation of filmmakers, musicians and artists. Many of whom were too young to legally vote for Putin when he first came to power, and many of whom have already accepted that the battle for personal freedom had been lost and surrendered to a life in a police state.

Those of us still in Russia, and those who worry for the safety of their families, have no choice but to either remain silent, or speak anonymously. It feels depressing to do so, but when the risk of your loved ones being hurt is real, sometimes the optics change.

Freedom of speech and freedom of press in Russia has taken a fatal blow, as prison sentences for spreading “fake news” have been introduced. Freedom of cinema, very quietly and without putting up much of a fight, is about to take its place in the neighboring grave. Those of us still in Russia, and those who worry for the safety of their families, have no choice but to either remain silent, or speak anonymously. It feels depressing to do so, but when the risk of your loved ones being hurt is real, sometimes the optics change.

The world is calling to boycott and cancel Russia and Russian culture along with it, in its entirety. Even against those of us who, for years, chose art as their means of protest against Putin’s regime in the hope that we would create unity among more likeminded people and broaden horizons. For a brief moment we did just that, and auteur, oppositional cinema from Russia was welcomed with open arms and across the world. Those of us who actually cared about the direction the country was moving and did all they could about it are now being boycotted as well. We will have no choice other than to face the music in the totalitarian regime we now find ourselves living in, our viewpoint and mere presence being rejected on both sides of the spectrum.

Of course, we as the Russian people all bear responsibility, in some shape or form. For being a bit too comfortable, for clearly developing a case of Stockholm syndrome, and benefiting somewhat blindly from the opportunities that had been there for professionals working in the cultural field. For not disagreeing loudly enough with the wider politics of the same system, for not taking to the streets before it became illegal to do so. But we should not be punished for believing that there was a chance to find a balance in a grey area while it, for a very brief moment, existed. Before our entire country turned into one big prison, it seemed possible to represent the “better side of Russia” through the films that we made.

I am not ashamed of being from Russia, and refuse to ever be. It is a country with a great history, and a great culture. But I am ashamed that they — the aggressors and the people making these decisions on behalf of their people — are Russian. They do not deserve to be.

It is worth acknowledging that without the influence of Russian culture, modern cinema would have been dramatically different, for better or for worse. Boris Pasternak smuggled Doctor Zhivago to Italy, where it was first published. Sergey Eisenstein took on the system and Josef Stalin himself, against the backdrop of a terrible war, to be able to make his epic Ivan the Terrible what it is: a critique of Stalinism, raising questions about the very nature of power and tyranny. Like Tarkovsky decades later, he had created a unique new cinematic language, above all in an attempt to evade censorship.

Russia, not for the first time in its history, is entering a new era of pro-government propaganda in cinema, and an industry entirely controlled by the state. But those voices still willing to speak and willing to take real risks from within this system, must be supported and must not be refused their place in the filmmaking community, which was always known to stand for freedom. They must have the chance to present their films to an international audience, as they may no longer be able to release them at home. It isn’t about walking red carpets. It’s about getting the message across.

Art remains powerful and impactful, no matter how dark the times. Now is the time to unite, and to throw everything we have at them. Those of us who still can. Because if our cinema, theatre and music can convince at least one person that he is not alone and that a resistance still exists, then we are one step closer to taking back our country, or at least our sense of freedom. We cannot do it alone, without the help of the Western world.

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