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How Do Indie Filmmakers Survive in Russia?

How Do Indie Filmmakers Survive in Russia?

The 36th Moscow International Film Festival (MIFF, June 19-28), upstaged by an impending war epic in the Ukraine, took place in a city of rampant construction, filled with new immigrants from all over the former Soviet Union. Sometimes Moscow can seem like New York or Chicago, except for higher prices for anything but vodka and the subway.

READ MORE: With Russia’s Biggest Hit Opening in the US, All Eyes Are On the Country’s Film Industry and Anti-LGBT Laws

But the challenges for those who make movies in Russia have no immediate parallel. The festival provided a microcosm of the struggles among Russian filmmakers today.

Defying the West

MIFF’s glittery opening in bling-heavy Moscow screened the hockey saga “Red Army” (fresh from Cannes), before which the festival director Nikita Mikhalkov declared through a translator that the West, which has imposed sanctions, will not starve Russia, and “will not make our films.”

For all the vitriol, West-envy was part of the festivities. Before and after Mikhalkov’s speech, students from the Moscow Film Institute, known by its acronym VGIK, performed song and dance numbers modeled after Oscar sequences. The warning here was “Next Stop Hollywood.”

The Shadow of Censorship

Nationalistic rhetoric aside, the prospects for filmmaking and showing films in Russia today can be discouraging, especially outside official circles. Just as the festival opened, the independent English-language Moscow Times reported that lesbian love scenes in “Blue is the Warmest Color” would be banned. Since the film already played theatrically in Russia, its internet availability might be affected. Exhibitors and internet carriers risk fines of more than $1,000 per showing of any film that officials find objectionable.

Another new law bans cursing in films, effective June 1 and supported by Russian cultural minister Vladimir Medinsky, a Putin protege who spoke at the MIFF opening. The law could ban the Cannes prize-winner “Leviathan” (from Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev), unless scenes are cut or the soundtrack is altered. Films with gay content, frank discussion of sexuality or raw emotion could also be targeted.

Somehow, festivals like MIFF are exempted. That status helped account for the capacity crowd for “Welcome to New York,” Abel Ferrara’s spare-no-taboo melodrama inspired by the Dominique Straus Kahn scandal.  MIFF programmer Peter Shepotinnik thought fears of free expression under threat were exaggerated. “Modern cinema, if it indeed wishes to be called modern rightfully, can’t afford to let itself be affected by restrictions or taboos,” he said. “The process will also probably be supported by the alternative distribution methods, the ones that don’t rely on government support and that already proved their efficiency.”

Locals argued that Russia is just being Russia. “We tend to think that Russia, because of our own association with communism as left wing, is much more progressive than it actually is,” said Maxim Pozdorovkin, co-director of “Pussy Riot: a Punk Prayer,” which was banned in Russia. Pozdorovkin was at MIFF 2014 with “The Notorious Mr. Bout,” a portrait of an arms dealer and former KGB agent who is now serving 25 years in US federal prison. The film premiered at Sundance in January.

“The country is actually very very conservative. Putin sounds like Ronald Regan now, with all this talk here of family values,” said Pozdorovkin, a Russian citizen who lives in Moscow and Brooklyn. He admitted that Russians under 30 might not care, since that age group downloads films illegally.

Seeing Russia in the Movies

Besides “Da I Da” (“Yes and Yes”), which won the festival’s director’s prize, there were other discoveries at MIFF. Chief among them was “A White, White Night,” a detective story directed by Ramil Salakhutdinov and set in grandly picturesque St. Petersburg. In this gentrification drama, a burnt-out private eye is hired by a fretful mother to find her young son who disappeared in the former imperial capital. The plot empowers the director to show vulnerable people displaced from their homes by slash-and burn-construction to serve Russia’s new rich. It’s a perfect theme for New York, and a wry juxtaposition of new rich and new poor in a country that once proclaimed the end of the class struggle.  

Also at MIFF was “Goodbye Mom,” a domestic thriller by Svetlana Proskurina. Shot in the icy hues of a Hitchcock or Chabrol update, it begins with the birth of a child to a privileged couple that lives in an urban loft and a luxurious dacha outside of town. Once the baby is born, another man enters the couple’s life, eroding whatever bond was there, hence the title. Tautly paced, and elegantly shot, “Goodbye Mom” has a sleek commercial look, but don’t expect it to cross any borders.  

Russia’s Harsh Truths

The documentary “Kardiopolitika,” from Svetlana Strelnikova, has little commercial value — but that doesn’t make it unmemorable. In the remote Ural city of Perm, chain-smoking heart surgeon Sergey Sukhanov fights to build a modern hospital and ends up entering politics. In a mess of cutting up the sick and saving lives under rough conditions, dictatorship in the hands of the right man (in his microcosm) gets results.

Filled with the surgeon’s cursing (represented by letters rather than entire words in the subtitles), the doc offers an allegorical apologia for Putin at the helm of the Russian state. You leave the theater with an uncomfortable openness to a reasonable argument for an unreasonable position. Strelnikova’s cutaway close-ups of Dr. Sukhanov operating guarantee that you’re never comfortable here. This is filmmaking from the heart, as they say.      

So was “Ordered to Forget,” a documentary directed by Hussein Erkenov about the Soviet massacres of Chechen civilians in the town of Haibach in 1944, which was officially banned for its potential to fuel ethnic divisions. At its crowded premiere, where audience members battled for seats, Erkenov, 54, declared, “this is my first and my last screening.”

Erkenov would not discuss the budget for his epic, with hundreds of extras on locations in the mountains of Chechnya – “you can torture me,” he said defiantly —  but he estimated that it cost one tenth the budget of a comparable official epic (which suggests something in the neighborhood of $500,000). The film was financed by private investors and produced by a regional official in Chechnya, with the support of the Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov, a friend of Moscow.  

“The best thing that Kadyrov did was to stay out of the way,” said the plain-spoken Erkenov, who noted that he fought his funders to stay clear of extreme Chechen polemicism. “I am an independent,” he said. “They can’t prohibit me from saying anything. They can kill me,” he told the audience.

Erkenov, whose family origins are in a region near Chechnya, was born in Kazakhstan, where his parents were displaced during World War II. His film may never show on Russian screens, he said, but offers are coming in from festivals in the Persian Gulf, where exposure could provide the help that he needs. “I’m always in debt,” he said, a perennial indie lament.  Ukraine could be another market.                                             

Russia in the Audience

Tempers flared at the Russian premiere of “The Notorious Mr. Bout,” a co-production with BBC Storyville, which had no Russian funding. After the whirlwind chronicle of Bout’s adventures and trial – with plenty of footage filmed by Bout himself about provisioning war zones in Africa — Bout’s wife Alla came onstage and denounced the indie doc and the U.S. prosecution of her husband. Two pilots who had flown for Bout praised him as a decent boss, who took risks. It was spontaneous theater, or a performance calculated to seem spontaneous, a compelling feature for an eventual “Notorious Mr. Bout” DVD if someone caught it on video.

Pozdorovkin sold his film to the Russian cable station Doc24, where non-fiction efforts aside from formatted television news product tend to air.

Now executive-producing a doc on the Bolshoi Ballet for HBO, Pozdorovkin said that Russian government funding for independent documentaries was minimal and money for indie docs isn’t trickling down from the new moneyed Russian One Per Cent.

“Russian money is a joke,” he said. “What the Ministry of Culture or private donors give to filmmakers is very, very little.”

Lessons From Abroad

MIFF was the occasion for Russian independents to discover films made for far less than those budgets. Two of those offerings were in the festival’s main competition.

“Beti and Amare,” a German/Ethiopian co-production shot on the vast plain north of Addis Ababa, is the feature debut of Andreas Siege, 28, who calls it the first Ethiopian science-fiction film. It’s an unusual plot. A young woman caring for  her elderly father in a near-infinite expanse is victimized by a crew of three local toughs on horseback (straight out of classic westerns.)  Her persecution seems hopeless until an alien falls from the sky — literally.

Siege’s sci-fi textures looked like children’s drawings, but his landscape sequences are elegiac, suggesting a film that cost far more than $14,000. 

At half that budget, also in the MIFF competition, was “Reporter,” the latest feature by Thijs Gloger, 28, of Groningen, Holland. Shot there for a mere $7000, Gloger’s story trails a character obsessed with emergencies as he stalks the next disaster with a police radio. This ambulance chaser’s attraction to emergency vehicles and gear makes for odd tactile encounters with what’s inside a firehouse garage. Gloger’s JVC video camera floats around these objects as Matthew Barney does in the “Cremaster” films, at a fraction of the cost and the pomposity. You could easily spend more on dinner for two in a Moscow restaurant.

“I don’t think the budget has to do with the aesthetic,” said Groger. “Nowadays with the SLRs and other cheap cameras, you can shoot a film that looks like it’s made for $1 million but is made for $,5000.”

Young Russians eager to make more films for less money packed into screenings of “Reporter” and “Beti and Amare.” All they need now is a place other than this film festival to show their low-budget creations. 

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