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Russian Filmmakers Rock the Boat to Critical Acclaim

Cannes entry ‘Leto’ exemplifies a willingness in Russia to explore a broad range of genres

Russian films at Cannes this year illustrate bravery, past glories and increasing success in genres that show off the country’s forte in FX and animation work.

As Ilya Stewart of Hype Production sees it, the most successful Russian output these days in terms of critical and fest appreciation is outside the state film funding system, which shepherds most of the country’s films from development to distribution.

Hype’s rocker biopic “Leto” (“Summer”), a warts-and-all look at a seminal Russian music figure from the ’80s who was inspired by Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, has utilized independent financing and co-production resources from outside Russia, says Stewart, noting that the director remains under house arrest — a punishment recently extended so that he will not be able to attend the Cannes premiere of the main competition film.

“Our director, Kirill Serebrennikov, is truly a global citizen, who is extremely sensitive to the world we live in and the current state of society, and this is never limited to only his immediate context,” Stewart says. “In everything he tackles — theater, ballet, opera or film — he always manages to break boundaries and to create material that is universal.”

With “Leto” focusing on the underground rock scene set in the Soviet Union and musicians known mostly within the Russian-speaking world, Serebrennikov “really took it to another level and managed to speak to an entire generation,” Stewart says.

Hype produced “Leto” and the director’s previous film, “The Student,” without state support, “leaving ideological constraints behind,” says Stewart. “A form of economic censorship does exist when it comes to the film institutions and certain themes. This in turn creates a very competitive and interesting environment, which allows remarkable talent to emerge.”

In the case of Serebrennikov, “He is a household name in the theater, ballet and film world, internationally recognized for his work on a regular basis. We remain hopeful that the authorities will come to this realization as soon as possible and allow him to continue his work.”

The indie production strategy is one more Russian directors are embracing, he adds, citing the Oscar-nominated “Loveless” by Andrey Zvyagintsev, who serves on the Cannes main competition jury.

Other directors manage to win critical respect while still working within the system, he points out, including Alexey German Jr. whose “Dovlatov,” the story of a censored writer, won the Silver Bear in Berlin this year and was picked up by Netflix.

The Holocaust drama “Sobibor,” which recounts the most successful uprising of inmates in a death camp during World War II, will fly the colors for state-backed Russian films.

The thoroughly detailed action film, set in the Nazi camp in Poland of the movie’s title, was showcased in Warsaw in April, and premieres theatrically in Russia and other European countries this month.

“World War II action movies are still a hot subject in Russia,” says Anastasia Bankovskaya of Planeta Inform, which focuses on promoting Russian films in foreign territories, having recently moved into distribution.

Other Russian titles at Cannes celebrate past military heft, such as “T-34,” “Tanks” and “Tanks for Stalin.”

Russian post houses have become adept at CGI, meanwhile, delivering stunning imagery at rates far lower than many Western companies can manage. Among the recent crop of films showing off slick FX, says Bankovskaya, are several sci-fi features including “Guardians,” “Coma,” “Attraction” and “Robo.”

Genres reliant on strong FX elements are being embraced, she adds.

“Lately Russia has been producing a lot of horror movies that have been successful at home and abroad,” she says. Bankovskaya cites global sales north of $5 million for last year’s “The Bride,” a visually impressive fright film turning on the 19th-century practice of photographing dead relatives, which also saw healthy sales and interest in Southeast Asia and Latin America.

Mila Rozanova of Moscow-based Mars Media points out that stylized Russian love stories can work well abroad, citing two new films, the “high-concept melodrama” about two women in love with the same man, “The Perfect Ones,” and the thriller “In the Hood,” about two young friends who get mixed up with the wrong guys.

“It’s a talented first feature by Olga Zueva that stars Russia’s hottest actor, Danila Kozlovsky,” Rozanova says. Women consider him the “Russian Tom Cruise,” she says. The latter film features fresh and dynamic style, “with lots of rap music and action sequences.”

Both films receive studio releases in Russia in the fall.

Anna Krupnova of U.K.-based Reason8 Films is banking on fantasy/sci-fi with “A Rough Draft,” one of the few titles in the company’s catalog that’s not an English-language title. The film features strong characters and storyline — factors not always in evidence in the genre — and “has all the elements of commercially and creatively successful film irrespective of country of production, but at the same time carefully and very tastefully represents the best of modern Russian filmmaking,” Krupnova says.

“A Rough Draft” has done well with Southeast Asia distributors, she says, noting that Russian fantasy and action films are in high demand in the region. “We also have several offers from China and anticipate closing in Cannes.”

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