All films must be in local language

The Ukrainian minister of culture Tuesday issued a vigorous defence of controversial new rules obliging all foreign language films to be dubbed or subtitled into Ukrainian or be blocked from the country’s cinemas.

Vasyl Vovkun, who was in Berlin as part of an official cultural delegation that included Kateryna Yuschenko, wife of the Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko, said the language law was designed to support the home distribution market.

“The move to Ukrainian language films is part of a government project to develop a home grown Ukrainian distribution industry,” Vovkun told Variety.

The law – on the book for the past two years but only implemented recently – has angered Russian distributors and their local Ukrainain subsidiaries and partners who see it as a costly bureaucratic barrier.

Russian distributors control around 90% of foreign films screened in Ukraine and tend to supply Russian language dubbed or subtitled copies that are part of wider packages distributed throughout Russia and the former Soviet territories.

The implementation of the law lin January followed the failure of a series of court challenges backed by Russian and allied distributors.

It resulted in Ukrainian customs impounding 50 Russian language dubbed copies of French blockbuster “Asterix and the Olympic Games” to the consternation of distributors and exhibitors.

Russian television coverage of the issue cast it in the same terms of economic or political clashes between the two countries over gas and NATO membership.

Vovkun said the measure should have been implemented gradually over two years with a rising percentage of Russian and other foreign language films shown in Ukrainian.

Under Russophile Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych the law was widely ignored. He was replaced in December elections by Orange Revolution heroine Yulia Tymoshenko.

“Complaints are part of the wider economic pressure that Russia is putting Ukraine under as witness by the current gas dispute and President Yushchenko’s visit to Moscow,” Vovkun said.

President Yushchenko yesterday (Tuesday Feb 12) agreed a deal to pay off $1.5 billion in gas supply debts after an urgent Kremlin meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russia had trheated to turn off gas supplies if the debt was not paid.

Observers link Tuesday’s sudden payment ultimatum with Russian displeasure over recent Ukrainian moves towards NATO membership.

Andriy Khalpakhchi, director the Ukrainian Cinema Foundation, said even though many Ukrainians in Kiev and the Russophone eastern half of the country spoke Russian everyone understood Ukrainian.

The key aim of the law was to give Ukrainain distributors muscle in negotiating their own deals to buy foreign films, which remained dominated by Russians.

“Some European sellers at Berlin’s film market are reporting that Russian buyers are already threatening not to buy films if they sell directly to Ukraine without using Russian distribution channels,” Khalpakhchi said.

He added that the Ukrainian government now planned to provide some financial support for art house film distributors to offset the additional costs of Ukrainian dubbing or subtitling.

There were also calls from within Ukraine for original Russian language films to be exempt from the local language law in order to maintain the country’s long established bilingualism.

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