It doesn't look like the global film industry is ready to accept any Russian films to film festivals as Unkraians war with Russia continues. While some film festivals like the Molodist Kyiv International Film Festival stopped accepting Russian films eight years ago, many other film festivals are questioning the ethics of banning art from specific countries.
A group of Ukrainian filmmakers has publicly urged that film festivals should ban films from Russia. This debate is one of many that international fest programmers are facing as they decide which films should be selected for programming.
But the problem is a little more complex. Who should be banned from entering film fests? Films backed by Russian state funds, or co-productions in which the Russian state is a partner? Should films made by Russian filmmakers be rejected completely?
'Woland'Credit: Universal Pictures
“You can’t cancel Russian culture,” Viktoria Leshchenko, who is the program director of the Docudays UA human rights film fest in Ukraine and a professional with 10 years of experience in festival management, told Variety. “Of course, it’s good to suspend this collaboration until the war is over.”
Leshchenko is not convinced that screening films by Russian filmmakers who object to the war and live outside the country are acceptable, stating that they are “Russian elites” who have been leaving their country and protesting abroad. “We truly think this doesn’t help,” Leshchenko said.
Not everyone agrees with Leshchenko.
Cíntia Gil, a documentary consultant for Cannes Directors’ Fortnight, believes that supporting dissidents of all kinds is a “fundamental” role for film fests and that banning controversial films is not always helpful.
“Well-intended big actions” can make a dramatic statement, Gil said, stating that cancel culture is “only good for Facebook and Twitter for a week.” Gil acknowledges that she would hesitate to “put a Russian film in competition” because in some cases the “awards mean more than the film.”
'Captain Volkonogov Escaped'Credit: Central Partnership
“All curators have to face it and decide what their position is,” Ji.hlava chief Marek Hovorka said about any Russian-made film being considered for a fest. Hovorka acknowledges that sanctions are important when encountering Russian domestic propaganda, which tries to convince viewers that nothing is happening, but not telling a Russian story that brings new context to the conversation while protecting the sanction of a film fest is not beneficial to the craft.
Veton Nurkollari, artistic director of DokuFest Kosovo, agrees that sanctions matter but points out that film festivals have a limited impact on national policy. “It’s much more important to ban Russians from football,” he argues. “Then the world will see.”
The ethics that many fests are facing are tough to navigate. Who is allowed to show their film to the world? Who is allowed to showcase their work for the year and gain notoriety or success from the circuit? What is the conversation being had around these filmmakers who are already controversial?
'In Limbo'Credit: Courtesy of Aleksandr KhantGil believes that the issues raised in these controversial ethical practices extend far beyond one film, arguing that the “colonial tradition of cinema” in which “rich, white countries film in less rich, less white countries,” often have little sensitivity to the rights and dignity of citizens there.
Film festivals have the power to decide to prevent viewers and audiences from exploitation or propaganda cinema. Programmers are facing a hard choice right now deciding what films should be allowed into fests. It is important to understand the context of the film and the conversation the fests want to have around these stories, but it is reasonable for audience members to explore their feelings or struggles to understand why these films are being highlighted on a larger stage.
It’s a complicated ethical issue that urges a larger conversation within the filmmaking community, so let us know your thoughts in the comments.