EXCLUSIVE: Influential Ukrainian film producer Denis Ivanov, whose credits include Sergey Loznitsa’s Donbass and Oleg Sentsov’s Rhino, says the lack of support from major film festivals for a boycott of Russian culture is tantamount to complicity in Vladimir Putin’s war.
Speaking to Deadline from Kyiv, where he is bravely sticking it out despite imminent danger, the producer tells us he won’t leave the city he loves and will resist the invasion in “all possible ways.” That’s despite his sister’s flat in the city being destroyed by a Russian missile last week.
Ivanov pulls no punches in expressing his frustration towards the response from the film community to date, which has seen all major festivals decline to participate in the boycott called for by the Ukrainian Film Academy. Simply put, he believes showcasing Russian culture at the moment is “a betrayal” of his country.
The producer acknowledges that there are Russian filmmakers and film critics who have taken part in protests, some of whom have been arrested, but he says those people understand a temporary “cancelling” of Russian culture is necessary.
“Where to draw the right line is obvious – suspend presentations of Russian films until peace in Ukraine prevails,” he tells us below.
DEADLINE: Regarding your personal situation, where are you right now and how are you staying safe?
DENIS IVANOV: I’m now in Kyiv, working and volunteering. It’s hard to say anything about safety – I think most of the people who stay in the city understand that it’s a lottery, your house could be bombed any time. My sister’s flat in Kyiv was destroyed last week by a missile strike. However, this is my city, the city I love, and, as many other citizens, I will resist, in all possible ways.
DEADLINE: What was your reaction to Cannes’ statement (and other major festivals) that they would not boycott Russian films, but would also not be welcoming “official Russian delegations” this year?
IVANOV: I read Cannes, Venice, Locarno, and Toronto’s statements and understood that festivals are going to keep their pantheon of ‘great Russian directors’ and will keep promoting ‘great Russian culture’. They politely wrote about their support of Ukraine, however, the truth is that for Ukrainian filmmakers these statements were more about the support of further aggression rather than solidarity.
Russian film works in the same way as Russian TV. You watch the ‘great’ [high quality] content and then you watch the news about ‘Ukrainian fascists’. Film festivals are also media. They screen ‘great’ Russian films from ‘opposition’ directors and then the same director is giving interviews about his political position, saying “Crimea is Russian”, “Ukraine is a historical part of Russia”, “Ukrainians and Russians are the same nation”, and “Ukraine is ruled from the U.S.”.
During the biggest conflict in Europe since World War 2, I feel that continuous support of Russian culture is a betrayal of human values.
‘Great Russian culture’ is responsible for the death of more than 100 children, tens of thousands of Ukrainians, and millions of refugees. Let’s talk about that. If all kinds of sanctions, including cultural, were implemented in 2014, when Russia started to annex Ukrainian territories, Ukraine would not face the genocide now. We have to stop promoting Russian culture until the end of the war.
DEADLINE: It is tricky to differentiate between Russian filmmakers who are independent and those supported by the state – ultimately many people in the film industry benefit from some form of state funding. Does that make it hard to draw a line between those who are pro-Putin or complicit and those who have been critical of the regime?
IVANOV: Most of the talented Russian directors were silent for eight years and now, when it comes to emigration because of their lifestyle collapse, they hypocritically write “no war” on social media, to continue their careers in the West. I think they shall not avoid the responsibility for their silent position and complicity with the regime.
The producers of the ‘opposition’ Russian films have also produced many patriotic movies and chauvinistic TV series for the internal market. They organized parties called names like “Crimea is ours” during the occupation of the Ukrainian peninsula. According to recent polls, 70% of Russians are supporting the war in Ukraine. Are these producers victims of the regime? Why show their works to the world if they were involved in propaganda inside Russia?
Film festivals are going to give voice to these people, making them victims, promoting their art, and blinding audiences with the ‘great Russian culture’. This is beyond any ethic. Where to draw the right line is obvious – suspend presentations of Russian films until peace in Ukraine prevails.
DEADLINE: Do you worry that having Russian films in a festival like Cannes would serve to distract from the invasion of Ukraine?
IVANOV: Cinema is the machine of empathy. On the official website of the Russian Ministry of Culture there is a statement that the purpose of Russian films abroad is to enhance empathy towards Russian society. Screening Russian films now is supporting Putin’s state position.
For example, the very good Russian film Beanpole by Kantemir Balagov tells the story of post-WW2 Leningrad. Is it ethical to follow the story of how Russians were victims during WW2, while Putin is doing the same crimes as the Nazis, but in Mariupol? What is the purpose of such narratives in the times of the Russian-Ukrainian war? This is just one example of such ideological shifts.
The victims are Ukrainians now, Russians are aggressors. Let’s be clear.
DEADLINE: What do you think of the suggestion that a boycott would isolate the Russian people further and increase Putin’s stranglehold on them?
IVANOV: European culture is so Russian. Russian society is already isolated from common sense, and filmmakers as well are responsible for this. The boycott that we are demanding is not against artistic expression. It is against Russian narratives and the popularization of Russian culture that covers the cannibalistic policy of Putin’s regime.
The media are trying to change the agenda to the message that Russians are victims. The news that a Ukrainian journalist and film critic was kidnapped and tortured in occupied Kherson was not mentioned in any big European media outlet. However, the “brave” decision of a Russian correspondent to stop working for a propagandist channel and stay in Paris, where she was delivering their messages for almost 10 years, is printed on the first pages of almost all top French media. This is the imperialistic discourse, where the marginal voices from the former empire are heard louder than mainstream opinions from the ‘colony’. Sorry, we are refusing to be a Russian colony.
Most of the consultants for film festivals, responsible for selecting films from “post-soviet countries”, are Russians or passionate Russophiles, integrated into the Russian cultural scene. How will Ukrainians present their works to these people this year? Will Ukrainian cinema again be treated as a colonial one? How many Ukrainian works will be presented in international film festivals in the future, as all of the current projects are stopped, filmmakers are on the front lines, and there is no public financing anymore?
I feel like Ukrainian filmmakers are much more isolated than our beloved Russian colleagues now.
DEADLINE: On the flip side, would a high-profile platform like Cannes allow a Russian filmmaker to be openly critical of the invasion and potentially have an impact on people in Russia, if they were brave enough to make a stand?
IVANOV: Russian filmmakers and film critics that I respect clearly expressed their position about the occupation of Crimea eight years ago, about the arrest of Oleg Sentsov, and current aggression. They took part in protests, some were arrested, some flew to the West. Kira Kovalenko, Anton Dolin, Yevgeny Gindilis, Alexey Medvedev and many others. They understand the concept of collective responsibility for crimes against humanity. Most of them support the ‘cancelling’ of Russian culture because they understand that this measure is temporary and necessary. Their voices are not heard.
Openly critical statements of Putin’s regime from Russian directors and producers in Cannes of course would be delivered, but I think mostly as an excuse to be present in the selection.
DEADLINE: What about the argument that cinema can be a useful tool to promote anti-Putin ideals and could help to draw attention to everything that is going on?
IVANOV: I haven’t seen any Russian film, at any film festival, for the last eight years, made outside of state financing or without the financing of Putin oligarchs. These films wouldn’t be made if they were anti-Putin. I think the best way to draw the attention to what is going on is to boycott Russian films on all possible platforms and listen to Ukrainian voices rather than voices from the aggressor country. We exist.
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