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Opinion | Studios are right to shun Russia. But festivals shouldn’t shun Russian filmmakers.


Yes, a massive studio release is an artistic undertaking, one that can bring audiences together and break down borders in the common bond of aesthetic appreciation. But such releases are also enormous economic undertakings that drive entire sectors of multiple national economies. “The Batman” probably cost more to make and market than the entire gross domestic product of some of our smaller island countries.

At a time when companies around the world are announcing their refusal to do business in Russia, then, it makes sense that America’s largest film studios are heeding the call to solidarity and withdrawing their product from Russia’s film market while Russian President Vladimir Putin’s illegal war continues. As a result, Russian citizens will be deprived of theatrical exhibition of such films as Warner Bros.’ “The Batman,” Disney’s “Turning Red” or Paramount’s “Sonic the Hedgehog 2.”

Russia’s film market is not small, either: As of 2019, the last normal year at the box office, it was the ninth-largest international film market. Losing that audience stings, particularly if the films wind up being seen anyway by Russians via digital piracy. That said, between the collapse of the ruble and questions about the ability of studios to get money out of Russia as a result of the nation’s isolation from the SWIFT banking system, the economic consequences of withholding a movie could be minimal in the short run.

But to quote another Batman movie: “It’s not about money. It’s about sending a message.” The goal here is to hammer home the fact that Russia is alone, on the verge of becoming a pariah state. Cutting off the flow of pure, uncut U.S. kino is one small but sure way to do that. And most of these films aren’t exactly aimed at inspiring glorious resistance against the state anyway.

But what message does it send when a film festival kicks Russian filmmakers out of competition because of Putin’s aggression? The answer there is trickier.

The Glasgow Film Festival earlier this week revoked invitations to two Russian films and their directors: Kirill Sokolov’s “No Looking Back” and Lado Kvataniya’s “The Execution” would no longer be welcome at the Scottish festival. After getting some heat for the decision, the festival clarified that organizers were doing this because of the film’s funding sources.

“Both films have received state funding via the CF Cinema Fund whose board of trustees includes current Ministers of the Russian Government and the Russian Ministry of Culture,” the festival said in a statement. The decision “is not a reflection on the views or opinions of the makers of these films.”

This is an understandable stance. But it is, I think, a mistaken one. International film festivals provide filmmakers with prime opportunities to speak out against the actions of the regimes that rule their homelands. And Russian filmmakers have frequently butted up against the priorities of Putin and his cronies; 2014’s “Leviathan” is one of the most damning critiques of Putin-era Russia I can remember.

Kvataniya himself offered a prayer for peace on Instagram: “We are a fraternal nation! I’m against the war! I did not choose this president! I did not choose this war! Love | Love | Love.” Wouldn’t it have been more powerful to bring Kvataniya to Glasgow and invite him to speak out against the war in person? Shouldn’t he be offered the opportunity to present to the world the view of Russians who are risking a great deal by opposing the conflict?

Russia’s special scrutiny at this moment is warranted. But festivals accept submissions from Chinese and Iranian filmmakers all the time. These filmmakers, too, often receive funding from the state; it’s not uncommon practice in smaller film industries, and it doesn’t turn the movies into government mouthpieces. Do festivals really want to be in the business of telling directors hailing from nations that already lack basic protections of freedom of expression that they’re not welcome because of human rights abuses perpetrated by the people ruling their homeland?

We in the West should continue to be a beacon of light to artists and art lovers alike. The urge to show solidarity with the Ukrainians is appropriate — but there are better ways to do so than by shutting out Russians opposed to the invasion.





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