Since co-founding Moscow-based production house Hype Film in 2011, Ilya Stewart and partner Murad Osmann – Variety Producers to Watch in 2018 – have grown the company from an award-winning commercial and music video producer into one of the most successful film production outfits in the country, thanks in no small part to their partnership with arthouse director and provocateur Kirill Serebrennikov.
After collaborating on his 2016 Un Certain Regard prize winner “The Student,” Serebrennikov and Stewart teamed up again on “Leto,” a rock drama which played in competition on the Croisette in 2018. Last year they competed again with “Petrov’s Flu,” a hallucinatory romp through a post-Soviet Russia in the grips of a mysterious flu pandemic.
Serebrennikov, however, was forced to sit out both premieres in the wake of his house arrest – and a subsequent travel ban – stemming from a 2017 charge of embezzlement that his supporters say was fabricated. Walking the red carpet ahead of the “Petrov’s Flu” debut, Stewart and the film’s cast and producers wore red badges bearing the director’s photo and initials. An empty seat inside the theater was symbolically reserved for Serebrennikov, who addressed the audience by FaceTime after a prolonged standing ovation.
The duo’s fourth collaboration, “Tchaikovsky’s Wife,” bows in competition May 18, and this time the powerhouse pair will be side by side as they ascend the steps of Cannes’ Grand Théâtre Lumière. Serebrennikov was finally granted permission to leave Russia earlier this year and has since relocated to Berlin.
What should have been a moment of triumph for the filmmakers, however, has been dimmed by the growing toll of Russia’s war in Ukraine, with Stewart admitting, “There is little cause for celebration this year.” The producer gave a wide-ranging interview to Variety at the Cannes Film Festival to discuss how the war’s fallout – and the ensuing crackdown by the Putin regime against domestic opposition – has impacted what had in recent years become one of the world’s fastest-growing film industries.
Russia has become a pariah state since the Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine. What impact has this had on production, distribution and financing for the Russian industry? Is there space for dissenting views in Russian cinema right now?
Filmmakers are very much in a state of total shock. It does not feel in any way appropriate to complain, considering the tragic loss of life that is taking place at the same time, but it is quite clear that the worlds of many had changed forever after Feb. 24.
I feel that people generally take for granted their basic right to speak out without facing consequences. But this is a privilege that isn’t available universally. Needless to say it is very hard to make cinema that can be considered relevant or global in any way under such conditions.
Purely from an industry standpoint, distribution took the biggest blow. With studio releases pulling out and with cinemas as a business and an audience still heavily reliant on them, many fear the worst in the long-term.
I understand the Ministry of Culture is still announcing calls for funding. We’ve talked in the past about the two-pronged system of state-backed vs. indie filmmaking in Russia. What does the cinema landscape look like right now? Does it look like Russian cinema is moving toward a world where patriotic or “approved” films continue to get produced, while dissenting voices are snuffed out?
Everybody working in the industry has to navigate a fine line, and for independent filmmakers especially it was often a balancing act. Existing in this sort of grey area was often the necessary path and sometimes a compromise one had to take to be able to make uncompromising art. However, in recent years independent cinema in Russia went from strength to strength and evolved at great speed until the events in Ukraine unfolded.
The entire industry, with unprecedented support from the state, worked in unison towards establishing the country as a key participant in the global conversation on cinema. One of the primary reasons for this renaissance was that some films were also funded outside of the official structures, with financing provided by people who had to make their own choices in a politically and economically extremely difficult environment and still felt the need to support independent artistic expression. Many of the best – and one might add subversive – films to come out of Russia over the last several years, including films that won awards at Cannes, Venice and Berlin, and went on to be shortlisted at the Academy Awards, would not have been made without the support of Roman Abramovich.
A whole new generation of filmmakers would not be here today without people with the economic power to support something that was often considered counter-culture. As a result, Russian auteur, non-officially aligned cinema thrived. This includes many established as well as new voices who previously had no other ways of making their films, either being turned down by the state funding bodies for thematic and ideological reasons, or not wanting to pursue that route from a moral standpoint in the first place. That choice, of course, also potentially no longer exists simply because of a widely expected tightening of screws by the institutions that hand out distribution permits. For a lot of filmmakers, it was already challenging enough to receive approval to release their films. What used to be a mere formality has become a far more difficult process in recent years. Many of the films that were produced with private equity funding were often financed fully conscious of this risk.
What role do foreign partners play?
Independent Russian cinema made outside that system of course also exists largely thanks to the support of the wider international filmmaking community and is often largely dependent on it. If it were not for our long-term collaborators Charades, who became close friends and trusted partners in the process after our successful journey together on Kirill Serebrennikov’s “Leto,” bringing his future unique visions to life would have been near impossible. Kirill’s last films are distributed in France by Bac Films, co-produced by Logical Pictures and partially financed by Arte Cinema France, and their involvement is essential in getting the films made. I truly believe ongoing collaborations will continue for those who have left and transitioned, but as the Russian film industry and the entire nation becomes more and more isolated, films will likely again become fully dependent on a single source of financing, with its own set of obvious rules and boundaries, both economical and ideological.
Of course, there is little to indicate that a space remains for these films, with cinema being such a significant part of the cultural ecosystem and long identified as one of the front lines of any ideology. I don’t think the future will be limited to purely patriotic films. I believe the industry will see a thematic return to the Soviet-era of filmmaking, with a heavy focus on uplifting comedies, motivational sport dramas. Pure escapism. For which there will also be continued demand. The country has been through this cycle before.
While it perhaps has little relevance in the current context, a decisive factor that will continue to define the face of cinema in Russia is self-censorship among the filmmakers themselves. It doesn’t seem likely that there will be a demand for art that mirrors reality, and it was difficult enough to find a wide audience or local distribution for auteur cinema in the first place. Again, not only from the point of view of restrictions, both official and not, but from an economic standpoint.
Does it feel like there’s a future in Russia for independent filmmaking?
A select few will be able to continue to work independently, and it would be the usual suspects and front-runners of this segment of the industry. Some of these directors will make the choice to transition completely into English-language, for example, while other determined artists will continue to find ways to make their films against all odds.
Outside of that, it goes without saying that the long-term effect on most of those who chose to leave will be devastating, because at the moment the majority of them no longer feel welcome at home, nor outside of it. I know a lot of filmmakers who have fled, but have already had to come back, with no chance or hope to even begin to make a living elsewhere. This state of limbo is very real, and a whole generation of artists might very much find themselves living in it.
What do you think about the decision taken by so many festivals to boycott Russian films? And what do you think about the compromise made by Cannes and Venice to ban official delegations but allow Russian filmmakers to participate?
I understand the emotional aspect of the conversation, and understand the need for a reaction, and for measures. But as a producer who has consciously spent many years working on building bridges, attempting to show a different side of Russia against all odds and stereotypes, I am obviously very torn. Without the right to articulate our thoughts and feelings at least by means of art, we become completely powerless.
Directors, and especially dissident voices, do not always represent their government, especially when it comes to auteur cinema made outside a typical and standard system of financing. While personally, I am very proud of the fact that the films we have made over the years also represented Russia at the most prestigious film festivals, international co-productions are often a delicate and fine art, putting together many pieces of a complicated puzzle in order to make the film in the first place. An international product. It is an experience unique to the business of cinema, proving that cinema is universal and can truly exist without borders, or at least transcend them. We need to help preserve that.
Purely from a storytelling perspective, I strongly feel that the whole world needs to see that there is not a consensus about the war within Russia, especially within the culture world. Cinema is one of the only methods of showing that. I will always believe in its power and believe that it was, for years, one of the only ways for people in the West to truly understand what is going on in the country, the opportunity to take a closer look inside.
Your long-time collaborator Kirill Serebrennikov has a film in competition at Cannes this year and has a number of other projects in the pipeline. Do you plan on working with him again in the future, now that he’s left Russia?
It has been a busy several years in terms of development, and we are looking forward to resuming production on “Limonov,” which had to be paused in early March. We are making “Limonov” together with Wildside and producers Mario Gianani and Lorenzo Gangarossa, Dimitri Rassam’s Chapter 2 and Pathe. Simultaneously, we are preparing Kirill’s adaptation of Olivier Guez’s book “The Disappearance of Josef Mengele,” which I am producing together with Charles Gillibert, whom I have also had the honor to collaborate with on this year’s Director’s Fortnight opening film “Scarlet” by Pietro Marcello – incidentally, based on a classic Russian novel by Alexander Grin.
We have several other projects in various stages of development with Kirill, among which is the life story of legendary director Andrey Tarkovsky, who famously fought against censorship to make his timeless films, against all odds, which serve as one of the foundations of modern cinema today. Ever since we had made “The Student” together, which premiered here at Cannes in Un Certain Regard, we have been on a conscious path, admittedly with a few detours due to the circumstances he has been through, towards working internationally and in various languages for a global audience. I am very proud that our partnership has survived through all that.
Kirill is finally making his long-awaited in-person return to Cannes with “Tchaikovsky’s Wife,” as he had to miss the last two times, not being able to legally leave Russia. That has changed now, even though there is little cause for celebration this year. I remain hopeful and confident that cinema has the power to unite.