A group of Russian journalists at the Berlinale have published an open letter to festival leadership, questioning their selection of controversial Russian film “Dau. Natasha” during a period “marked by the struggle against the culture of violence and abuse in the film industry.”
The post, published Saturday on Russian feminist film website KKBBD.com and signed by five accredited journalists, takes aim at the alleged violence, both psychological and physical, towards cast members in the making of the Russian epic, which was largely shot on a sprawling Ukrainian set over several years, with cast and crew completely immersed throughout the period.
Directed by Ilya Khrzhanovsky and Jekaterina Oertel, “Dau. Natasha” is one instalment of a planned series of films culled from more than 700 hours of footage. A second film, “Dau. Degeneration,” premiered out of competition in the Berlinale Special selection Friday.
Addressed to Berlinale creative director Carlo Chatrian and executive director Mariette Rissenbeek, the open letter reads, “We are writing to you to register our deep concern about the ethics of including ‘Dau. Natasha’ in the main competition of the Berlinale. The circumstances of the film’s creation have been extensively covered in both domestic and foreign media, and made clearer still during a recent Berlinale Talents Q&A with the authors.
“Having watched only a part of the vast ‘Dau’ project, we are obligated to reserve our judgment of the project as a whole — but we are within our rights to discuss ‘Dau. Natasha,’ which is competing as an individual title.”
The journalists raised three questions around the film’s inclusion in competition.
Firstly, at a time when “Harvey Weinstein is found guilty of sex crimes, in an era marked by the struggle against the culture of violence and abuse in the film industry,” the authors question whether the Berlinale perceives any ethical issues in screening a film that “by its own authors’ stark admission, contains scenes of real psychological and physical violence against non-professional actors,” as well as allegedly unsimulated sex between actors seemingly under the influence of alcohol.
“In the festival directors’ opinion, would such a film be possible to exhibit if it were created in the so-called First World — for instance, Germany, France, the U.K. or the U.S. — and used on-screen talent from these countries?” reads the letter.
“And finally, does your admission of this film into the main competition mean that the Berlinale supports and encourages mistreatment of talent in the name of art? What artistic goals, in your opinion, were met by the authors’ methods that could not be met in a respectful and non-abusive environment?”
The letter is signed by Russian journalists Tatiana Shorokhova, Marina Latysheva, Ksenia Reutova, Tamara Khodova and Dmitry Barchenkov.
Chatrian told Variety in a statement: “I still believe that the question with concrete allegations should actually be addressed to the production company. We inquired as to the production and were told that the allegations were not justified. The actresses confirmed this at the press conference. We are sure that both directors and the actresses will be willing to say more about this.“
Its publication on the day of the Berlinale awards ceremony could be strategic, drawing attention to a film that has a very real shot of earning a prize at the festival.
At the Berlinale Talents Q&A cited in the letter, and at which Variety was present, Khrzhanovsky fielded questions about the project’s duty of care procedures for participants who might have been disturbed by the experience.
He dismissed the idea that psychological assistance might have been helpful, saying that participants could instead use their time in makeup each morning as an opportunity to vent.
“The question is what a psychologist is, if it’s not just an education and a position. Very rarely we find psychologists who really understand and can help,” he said. “The important element of this project is the amount of love (a cast member) has towards (another).”
The final few hours of “Dau. Degeneration” depict real-life, violent Neo-Nazis who are brought into the closed world and let loose among the cast and crew for more than a month. The group includes notorious Russian activist Maxim Martsinkevich, who has received three prison sentences for inciting racial hatred and is currently in the midst of serving a 10-year sentence.
On Friday evening, following the premiere of the six-hour-long “Dau. Degeneration,” a member of the Berlinale’s selection team moderated talkback with Khrzhanovsky, and opened by saying she found many of the negative media reactions “very unjust.”
“Everyone just keeps talking about the rape — was there rape or wasn’t there rape. Isn’t this film really about this question and ambiguity?” she said.
The director directly addressed negative press, saying the ongoing questions about “rape, the suffering of people, manipulation and madness” stemmed from an incomplete view of the project’s scope.
“This is just about 1% of this project. I think it just takes time; you physically need time to see all the elements and how complicated this whole project is,” he said.
Khrzhanovsky reiterated his stance that those who chose to participate in “Dau” should take responsibility for their own experience.
For those who could withstand their time there, “This is a project that has therapeutic qualities as well, but it’s a dangerous game, because you don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. “If you go to this kind of project, of course it has some kind of liability. Sometimes this space can hurt you.”
The “Dau” shoot involved hundreds of thousands of non-professional actors, including real-life prison guards, artists and scientists, who lived full-time on site, cut off from the outside world — even when cameras were not rolling.
Reports in GQ from 2011 and Le Monde from 2019 detailed instances of Khrzhanovsky speaking to and about women in a derogatory way, calling his actresses prostitutes and asking women very personal and sexual questions during casting calls.
The director and “Degeneration” co-director Ilya Permyakov said in a written response to the Le Monde article that they “formally contested the truth” of the paper’s claims, which were “clearly the product of misunderstanding and miscommunication.”
Hours before the “Dau. Natasha” premiere at a press conference on Wednesday, Khrzhanovsky fielded questions from journalists about harassment claims and a difficult on-set environment for women, saying that such accusations were “a bit fashionable” and a by-product of the project’s immersive nature.
He brushed off harassment claims reported in the press by saying they came from anonymous stories reported in Russian-language sources that were picked up by other outlets. “They have no names; it’s a very Soviet practice — let’s call people ‘N,’” he said.