Soviet Hitch: How Russia Is Killing its Film Industry

man with a movie camera

Of late, Russia's been in the news for primarily negative reasons, garnering headlines for ferociously homophobic new legislation criminalizing something as small as having a gay pride flag patch on one's backpack. While the international community frets over the belligerently nationalistic and xenophobic direction the country's taken, it's worth examining the ways these appalling cultural developments are echoed and reflected in the country's recent artistic output.

Start by looking at the people in charge of stewarding Russian film. One important man is Vladimir Medinsky, the country's new Culture Minister. Medinsky is a controversial figure, to put it euphemistically, best known for a series of books called "Myths," in which he peddles his revisionist ideas about Russian history (like claiming a photo of a Nazi-Soviet military parade from 1939 was a photoshopped forgery). Another idea he's put forward is that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (the mutual non-aggression agreement between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union) "deserves a monument."

The Culture Minister position's important both because Russian filmmaking depends heavily on state financing and the films that are made are commercially endangered: last year, 396 foreign films were shown in Russia but only 84 domestic films, whose gross constituted a modest 15.5% of the country's box office. Russia is one of the world's fastest-expanding film markets: last year's total intake of $1.3 billion made it the ninth largest market in the world. There's lots of room for expansion, since the country's 3,000 screens only cover a quarter of its population: great news for Hollywood, but not terribly helpful for Russian filmmakers. Earlier this year, the Duma (Russian parliament) held a meeting with leading figures in Russian film to propose two ill-advised potential correctives to help the domestic film industry. One was to impose a quota allocating 20% of screenings for domestic products, while the other was to levy a tax on tickets for foreign films. "It seems they think that if we set out our own garden for Russian cinema, then people will come, but they won't," producer Igor Tolstunov noted. "They'll go where the tasty carrots grow, not just to the place where they simply grow."

At president Vladimir Putin's instigation, the Culture Ministry produced a five-year plan earlier this year calling for 22.5% of domestic screenings to be of Russian films by 2018 and to double the rate of domestic production. As part of this new initiative, this year for the first time pitching sessions for funding from the Ministry were held publicly, an attempt to stave off rumors of corruption. The results of these sessions weren't entirely satisfactory: while the undeniably excellent director Andrei Zvyagintsev ("Elena," "The Return") got funding for his latest project "Leviathan," one movie that should've gotten funds didn't. "Dear Hans, Dear Pyotr" was to be a German co-production about two friends — one German man, one Russian — who work on a project in Moscow together as a result of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, fall in love with the same woman, and have their friendship tested when Germany breaks the treaty and invades. Co-producer Heino Deckert said the decision — made after two years of work building up to production, with German public funding for the film already secured — was a "tragedy" that made him feel like he could never work in Russia again. Rumors flew that Medinsky personally squashed the project and given his unique historical views, that seems credible.

What kind of films is the Russian government interested in supporting? One clue comes from an announcement that a relatively paltry $250,000 had been set aside to commission a documentary about the 20th anniversary of the State Duma, one whose stated purpose is educational but which will almost certainly have a hefty dose of nationalistic propaganda. Another indication comes from a recent wave of biopics.

This year's top-grossing Russian production thus far is "Legenda No. 17," a biopic about hockey player Valeri Kharlamov. "The film about Valeri Kharlamov was not so much a biopic as a film about the confrontation between two systems—the United States and the Soviet Union," critic Andrey Arkhangelsky noted. The moral that he finds in this wave of films: "If you want to be famous and respected, you have to collaborate with the state." President Putin's gotten in on the act himself: during an April cabinet meeting, the agenda included "Consider the question of the creation of a motion picture dedicated to legendary Soviet footballer Lev Yashin." Yashin's widow initially was highly resistant to the idea of a film in which "they'd have me there naked, or dancing, something like that," but prolonged negotiations brought her around.

What else is on the Russian national cinema agenda? Two years ago, Putin expressed concern that "we have lost certain values of the Soviet period" and suggested that Russian filmmakers come up with an "ethics code." What he meant was a form of self-censorship guidelines (he proposed the Hays Code, established in 1934 in Hollywood until its messy demise in the 1960s, as a model). "Such a code based on common sense and the good will of filmmakers relieves tension in the discussion on the admissibility of the demonstration of violence and harsh scenes in cinema," Producers Guild president Renat Davletyarov said. The code's creation is scheduled to be complete by the end of summer under the direction of noted director Nikita Mikhalkov, a strong nationalist and Putin supporter. One clue as to his priorities in creating this code can be found in his recent thoughts on homosexuality. "Cinema cannot be healthy and full of energy in a world where same sex marriages are legal," he said. "I have nothing against gay people, it is a personal choice. But it is the destruction of divine harmony and humanity." There are real directors making good work in Russia, but with the creeps up top, their work can only get harder.