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Sean Penn Is Not Enough: Why the Film Industry Must Support the Ukrainian Cinema It’s Ignored for Years (Column)

The last three Ukrainian Oscar submissions barely received U.S. distribution, but they made their country's circumstances clearer than any CNN report.

“Atlantis”

While much of the world was glued to CNN this week, trying to parse the terrifying consequences of a geopolitical situation that simmered for years, I turned to the movies. 

No amount of breaking news can possibly convey the impact of Russian warmongering creeping into Ukrainian society, but the eerie and often heartbreaking ramifications come to life in Sergei Loznitsa’s satiric anthology “Donbass.” Valentyn Vasyanovych’s post-apocalyptic “Atlantis” is suddenly prescient for the way it conveys a bleak vision of Eastern Ukraine circa 2025, “one year after the war.” In Natalyz Vorozhbit’s “Bad Roads,” Donbas is explored as a series of tense exchanges between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainians at the mercy of propagandistic outbursts. 

No matter how much Western media depicts it as coming out of nowhere, these stories track the gradual encroachment of Russian ideology that rooted across Ukraine in the buildup to Putin’s harrowing assault. The movies saw it coming — but who saw the movies?

“Donbass,” “Atlantis,” and “Bad Roads” were festival-acclaimed films ultimately selected as their country’s Oscar submissions over the past three years, but they received minimal releases in the U.S., much in the same way that the region’s problems have been largely ignored by American media. Last year, “Donbass” came and went from modest VOD platform Film Movement Plus, the same outlet that released “Bad Roads” earlier this year. “Atlantis” was released by Grasshopper Films. Vasyanovych’s equally timely “Reflections,” which premiered last fall at Venice, has yet to find distribution. Their marginal visibility is a microcosm of the broader assumption that audiences don’t want to see these stories.  

“Donbass”

The simplest read on this trend is that bleak dramas about life during wartime are tough sells. Even in a post-“Parasite” world, the subtitles don’t help. But these are cinematic achievements that deliver remarkable snapshots of worlds that deserve to be seen, and I suspect their marginalization reflects a broader cultural problem that the industry should address. The world learns of people and problems largely through moving images that travel, and Ukrainian cinema simply hasn’t traveled enough. 

This week, the news broke that Sean Penn was in Ukraine to make a documentary centered on the chaos there for Vice. My own sources tell me that Penn, still huddled in Kiev with an unannounced co-director, initially intended to make a movie about the eccentric history of Ukrainian president and former comic actor Volodymyr Zelensky, whose own career embodies the tragicomic nature of truth and fiction that has governed the region for decades.

Those plans have since evolved and expanded, though the focus of the project is likely to settle as the situation unfolds. Cynical naysayers be damned: In light of the minimal interest in these issues that has plagued our entertainment media complex in recent years, I welcome Penn’s bravery and his capacity to direct his stardom toward a real-life narrative that deserves more audiences. After all, he was on to this situation well before CNN dedicated 24-hour coverage to it. 

But Sean Penn is not enough. In the time since “Donbass” left Film Movement Plus, it has yet to find a new home (paging Netflix). Yet “Bad Roads” is now on the platform alongside two other recent Ukrainian titles, “Falling, Volcano” and “When the Trees Fall.” How did Film Movement justify acquiring Ukrainian cinema when so many others had passed up? I called the company’s president, Michael Rosenberg, who oversees a staff of seven out of New York.

“I’m sure that most distributors looked at these films about the situation in Ukraine and assume there’s no interest in North America,” he said. “They probably felt that people don’t want to hear about how difficult it is in Donbass. It’s not the most obviously commercial topic.” 

Rosenberg said he landed the movie for a limited time as part of a larger strategy to offer flexible VOD deals to undistributed international films. We don’t require that we have titles exclusively,” he said. “We have them de facto exclusively, but we don’t require that we stay that way. The sales agent doesn’t have to worry about cutting off revenue sources. If they get an offer on all rights, they can take the film down. But at the same time, we can market the film on all our platforms without charging any of the costs back to you because we have that infrastructure here anyway.”

This loose deal structure is a canny one that more buyers should consider: It allows them to gamble on riskier titles without overspending and creating unreasonable expectations, while experimenting with subject matters that deserve wider audiences — and might find them on VOD.

“If it’s a film nobody wanted, and it gets a New York Times critics pick because we released it, then they can sell the film somewhere else,” Rosenberg said. “If they want the film back, they can have it.”

Film Movement Plus doesn’t exactly have a large subscriber base. “I don’t want to say how small it is, because it’s embarrassing,” Rosenberg said. “It’s in the low thousands. But it’s profitable now, and we’re able to keep it going even if it doesn’t grow that much.” The company stays in business thanks to its robust catalog, which yields strong business from the booming streaming market. Rosenberg said Tubi and Peacock are among its biggest clients. They might want to hit him up for “Bad Roads.” 

As for “Atlantis,” Grasshopper founder Ryan Krivoshey has made a name for himself in the arthouse space by tackling challenging, often experimental cinema by drilling down on its key audiences. (He previously ran Cinema Guild, another daring U.S. distributor.) With “Atlantis,” he played up the icy, cerebral movie as a sci-fi drama, which helped it find modest support on VOD. However, he said over the past week there had been a roughly 75 percent increase of interest in the movie on iTunes and Amazon. 

“History is not easy, and as we know it can explode into tragic circumstances,” he said. “So not making a film available because it’s grim or depressing should not be a rationale for not releasing it. That said, once you acquire it, you have to come up with innovative ways to bring it to the audience in the short term.” 

Krivoshey was born in Odessa, though he fled with his family in the late ’70s at the age of four. “It’s been a surreal moment in time,” he said. “Who knows what tomorrow will bring? We’re just glad the film is out there and people can discover it.”

He pointed out an irony to the undervalued market for Ukrainian movies in recent years. While America was amusing itself with slapstick comedy in the 1920s, it was the early Russian cinema of Dziga Vertov and others who recognized the more serious potential of the cinematic form to educate the world.

“You can’t really overstate the value of these films as a tool,” Krivoshey said. “Film is such an integral part of the Soviet Revolution. Those guys were using film to promote their cause of the worker. That part of the world has always known the value of the movies.”

Could distributors mine the medium in that way now? Movies can enlighten as much as they can amuse. Of course, Netflix and Amazon may have other priorities. However, as IndieWire’s Chris Lindahl reported ahead of Sundance, major news outlets like CNN and MSNBC have begun their own acquisition adventures as they look to expand their streaming ambitions. Their focus appears to be documentaries, but they might consider the opportunity to use other forms of cinema as a springboard for enlightening audiences to situations around the world. Acquire films from underrepresented countries, package them with newsy content about the regions they come from, and give audiences a more dramatic reason to engage with the news than anything traditional reportage can muster. It’s an opportunity to do good and serve the content machine all at once. 

As for Ukraine, it’s hard to say at this fragile junction what the future holds for its filmmakers. I spoke to a few of them this week as Russian forces advanced on the country. As I reported Friday, Vorozhbit joined me on Zoom from the countryside as she speculated about whether or not she would have to flee. “I’m pretty sure that our films will continue to be about war,” she said. 

“The Tribe”

The next day, I hopped on Skype with Myroslav Slaboshpytski, whose remarkable 2014 dialogue-free drama “The Tribe” — a thriller made exclusively with Ukrainian sign language — was one of the most exciting discoveries to break out of the international festival circuit over the past decade. It was the rare Ukrainian film to receive a global release, in part because the ingenuity of its storytelling device.

When I first met Slaboshpytski in the wake of that success, he was keen on pursuing a project about Chernobyl. Since then, he grew disillusioned by the narrow audiences for Ukrainian cinema and decided to pursue a project with Darren Aronofsky’s Protozoa and Brad Pitt’s Plan B, an English-language adaptation of John Vaillant’s Siberian thriller “Tiger,” about a conservationist game ward facing down a menacing large cat. 

Slaboshpytski still wanted to get that done, he said, as he smoked a cigarette in between furtive sips of whiskey at his home in Ukraine. He had briefly stepped away from the basement in his apartment, leaving behind his wife and cat to give me a ring. He insisted it was safe enough to take a breather.

“The cat is doing great, but he’s very sensitive to all the movement,” Slaboshpytski said with a chuckle. “This is the kind of experience you never plan to have and something which you can never can imagine. It’s moving very fast.”

Slaboshpytski said he had greater ambitions than the market for Ukrainian cinema allowed. “I want to make the same kind of powerful, interesting movies with emotions for a global audience,” he said. “It’s a new challenge for me. I have enjoyed support from the Ukrainian film fund, but Hollywood — oh, you hear that?” He turned his head toward the window as a faint whine drifted in. Sirens.

“Do you need to go?” I asked. He shrugged. “Soon,” he said, then took another swig of whiskey. “I suppose,” he said, “people may want to see something from Ukraine after this situation.”

As he signed off, it was clear that these storytellers aren’t done telling their stories. Someone just has to give them the platform to get them seen. 

Then again, I could be missing the point here. Are distributors avoiding challenging films from around the world because of the intricate rights issues that rarely make it into the press? Are movies devoid of escapism complete non-starters even for buyers flush with cash? I welcome readers keen on adding to this conversation or suggesting alternate solutions to the problem at hand: eric@indiewire.com

Browse previous columns here. 

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