Several leading Ukrainian filmmakers have called out the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival for including a Russian film in its 56th edition, which kicks off on Friday, insisting that it’s reneged on a promise not to welcome any movies with ties to the Russian government.
In a letter addressed to artistic director Karel Och and festival leadership that was shared with Variety, the filmmakers behind Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk’s “Pamfir,” Maksym Nakonechnyi’s “Butterfly Vision” and Valentyn Vasyanovych’s “Reflection,” criticized the long-running Czech festival for including “Captain Volkonogov Escaped,” by directors Natasha Merkulova and Aleksey Chupov, in its Horizons sidebar.
The film, which had its world premiere in competition at the Venice Film Festival last year, received backing from the Russian culture ministry.
“Screening any film that was financially supported by the Russian Ministry of Culture in the midst of war will whitewash Putin’s regime and make it stronger,” reads the letter, “giving an opportunity to the Russian propaganda machine to claim it has European support now, when the Russian army is killing thousands of innocent people, destroying cities and its theaters, libraries, schools and memorials, trying to completely kill the Ukrainian culture.”
Insisting that a platform for “Captain Volkonogov” at the distinguished Czech fest “distracts the international community from war crimes committed against Ukraine,” the filmmakers called on the festival to “suspend any cooperation with people and institutions directly or indirectly supported by the Russian government.”
The festival responded on Tuesday, standing by its decision while noting that what it described as “one of the most remarkable films from the last year’s edition of Venice Film Festival” had already received an invitation last fall to this year’s edition of the Czech fest.
In a letter signed by Karlovy Vary president Jiří Bartoška, executive director Kryštof Mucha and artistic director Och, the festival said that “Captain Volkonogov Escaped” – described by Variety as “a stylish thriller fueled by Stalin-era moral corruption” – featured “obvious parallels” with the current political climate in Russia, giving it special relevance amid the ongoing war in Ukraine.
“We believe that the film provides a fitting description of how the manipulative actions of a despotic leader can influence the mindset of the majority of the society, purposefully create enemies of the regime in the name of ideology and ruthlessly annihilate them, and how such actions ultimately lead to a national tragedy,” read the letter. “In this sense, we see the film ‘Captain Volkonogov Escaped’ as an indirect, but very distinct criticism of the current Russian state regime.”
Adding that festival leadership “strictly refuse” the filmmakers’ insistence that screening the film would distract the international community from Russian war crimes, the letter went on to say that “on the contrary, we believe that by screening the film, we can generate a public discussion which will draw attention to the overlap of the film’s theme with current events.”
Earlier this year, Karlovy Vary leadership denounced the invasion of Ukraine but distanced themselves from calls for a total boycott of Russian films, stressing that the festival “has always supported artists’ freedom of expression” and “want[ed] to be open to all artists whose work and public positions stand for democratic values and principles.”
The festival acknowledged that “many Russian filmmakers have long been critical of the situation in Russia and of their country’s official policies and have been persecuted for their views,” insisting that Karlovy Vary “will always support them.” However, the statement added that the organizers “do not want to and won’t accept anyone who is in any way associated with Russian state or governmental institutions or who stands in support of military aggression.”
Despite its critical stance, Monday’s letter also highlighted the support for Ukrainian filmmakers at this year’s event, which runs July 1–9. Four Ukrainian films will screen in Karlovy Vary, which will also host the Works-in-Progress program of the Odesa International Film Festival, which was canceled this year because of the Russian invasion. The program spotlights eight feature films in the final stage of shooting or in post-production that were produced in Ukraine or in co-production with Ukrainian partners.
The letter was signed by director Nakonechnyi and producers Darya Bassel and Yelizaveta Smith of “Butterfly Vision,” which bowed in the Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard section this year; director Vasyanovych and producer Volodymyr Yatsenko of “Reflection,” a Venice competition selection last year; and director Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk, producers Aleksandra Kostina and Jane Yatsuta, and co-producers Artem Koliubaiev and Alyona Tymoshenko of “Pamfir,” which premiered in the Cannes Film Festival’s Directors’ Fortnight section this year.
The full text of their letter can be read below:
As one of the largest and most prestigious international film festivals, every year Karlovy Vary International Film Festival becomes an important film event and industry forum for many filmmakers. Karlovy Vary IFF remains a cultural event that pays such a great effort to promote Central and Eastern European films. This makes us believe that Karlovy Vary festival understands and supports the artistic voices from these regions and is ready to demonstrate its solidarity with them. The Karlovy Vary festival spent 40 years operating under political pressures in socialist Czechoslovakia and thus for us, Ukrainian filmmakers, your festival is a special place, where we know we will meet friends and supporters, people with whom we share common historical experience and common values.
This is proven by the fact that this year Karlovy Vary festival hosts part of the industry program of Odesa International Film Festival, as well as screens many Ukrainian films – “Butterfly Vision,” “Pamfir,” “Klondike,” “Reflection”. In this way giving a lot of Ukrainian artistic voices the floor on the international scene, which otherwise they could have lost because of the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
That is why the news about the inclusion into the festival program of the Russian film “Captain Volkonogov Escaped” has confused us. In your official statement published at the beginning of March you wrote “we do not want to and won’t accept anyone who is in any way associated with Russian state or governmental institutions.” We’d like to point out that the film “Captain Volkonogov Escaped” was produced with the financial support of the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation and thus is in a very direct way associated with Russian state and governmental institutions.
Screening any film that was financially supported by the Russian Ministry of Culture in the midst of war will whitewash Putin’s regime and make it stronger, giving an opportunity to the Russian propaganda machine to claim it has European support now, when the Russian army is killing thousands of innocent people, destroying cities and its theaters, libraries, schools and memorials, trying to completely kill the Ukrainian culture.
Presenting any film that was financially supported by the Russian Ministry of Culture at such a large and prestigious international event distracts the international community from war crimes committed against Ukraine.
In April at goEast film festival during the panel discussion “Boycotting Russian Cinema – A Ukrainian Perspective,” Heleen Gerritsen, festival director, said she didn’t want to ban all Russian films from her program but after she saw what happened in Bucha she could not imagine seeing the Russian coat-of-arms on the screens of her festival.
Can you imagine the screens of your film festival promoting the Russian State that is committing unbelievable crimes at the very same moment while you are screening the films?
We ask you to suspend any cooperation with people and institutions directly or indirectly supported by the Russian government.
We are looking forward to your understanding and response to this mail.
UPDATE: This story has been updated to include a response from the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.