With the Cannes Film Festival abuzz ahead of the world premiere of Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis,” a mournful air raid siren sounded over the Croisette on Wednesday afternoon, serving as a somber reminder that the war in Ukraine has entered its fourth brutal month.
In a solemn protest outside the Salle Debussy, just steps from where Tom Hanks, Austin Butler and other stars of the “King of Rock” biopic were set to hit the red carpet at the Grand Théâtre Lumière, the Ukrainian filmmaking team behind Un Certain Regard player “Butterfly Vision” made an impassioned plea that the world remember their country’s suffering.
Standing on the steps of the Palais as the siren wailed – a nod toward the warnings that sound across Ukraine when a Russian attack is imminent – director Maksym Nakonechnyi, producers Darya Bassel and Yelizaveta Smit, and lead actress Rita Burkovska stood side by side with nearly two dozen members of the production team. They held translucent squares over their faces bearing the crossed-eye logo used on social-media platforms when content is considered sensitive or disturbing.
The protesters then unfurled a banner that read: “Russians kill Ukrainians. Do you find it offensive or disturbing to talk about this genocide?”
Speaking to Variety ahead of the protest, Bassel said the symbolic gesture was a reminder that “since the beginning of the full-scale war [in Ukraine], a lot of war-related visual content in social media was automatically hidden as sensitive and disturbing.” Rather than hide from the war’s discomforting reality, the producer urged the international community to confront the suffering of Ukraine head-on. “Sometimes people prefer not to think too much while Ukrainians are being killed.”
Bassel said the “Butterfly Vision” team spent the weeks ahead of Wednesday’s premiere deliberating over how to best make use of their Cannes spotlight. “It’s not about coming to Cannes to [have fun] or coming to Cannes to do business. For us, it’s only about delivering the message to the world,” said the producer. She added: “We couldn’t imagine using this time for anything else.”
It’s been a tale of two Cannes this week on the Croisette, where splashy premieres like “Elvis” and Tom Cruise’s “Top Gun: Maverick” have brought some pre-pandemic buzz back to the French Riviera. These have vied for attention with several red-carpet protests and renewed calls by Ukrainian filmmakers for a total boycott of Russian cinema.
That push focused on the festival’s inclusion of “Tchaikovsky’s Wife,” by Kirill Serebrennikov, in the official competition. Festival leadership has faced a backlash over the selection as many film festivals and cultural bodies – especially in Europe – have heeded the calls for a Russian boycott. Cannes struck an uneasy compromise to ban official Russian state delegations, as well as any individuals with ties to Vladimir Putin, while allowing filmmakers like Serebrennikov to attend.
Speaking at a charged press conference on May 19, the director described Russia’s war in Ukraine as a “total catastrophe” but rejected calls for a boycott of Russian film, describing the present situation as “unbearable.” He also defended Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, the billionaire who’s been sanctioned by foreign lawmakers for his allegedly close ties to the Russian president, and who helped finance Serebrennikov’s last two films.
The 52-year-old filmmaker was a no-show at the Cannes premieres of his last two competition selections while mired in a five-year legal ordeal stemming from charges of embezzlement that his supporters say were politically motivated. Serebrennikov recently fled Russia and resettled in Berlin.
Bassel, however, was unmoved by the travails of a filmmaker who she described as a “so-called dissident” guilty of “white-washing” the reputation of the controversial Abramovich. “When we are talking about dissidents, they are not usually friends of oligarchs,” she said.
The producer doubled down on her calls for a Russian cultural boycott on Wednesday, pointing to the economic sanctions imposed on the Kremlin since the start of the Ukraine war as evidence of how the international community can unite to tighten the screw on Putin. “It’s absolutely clear that this is one of the tools how we could stop this awful, bloody war,” she said. “It is the same with the cultural products that come out of Russia.
“If you’re talking about dissidents, and the filmmakers who are against Putin and his regime, what they’re doing is the product of Russian culture, is the product of the Russian state,” she continued. “And that culture is structuring national identity. When Russian [soldiers] come to Ukraine, and they rape children, they rape women…their identities are also products of Russian culture.”
“Butterfly Vision,” which marks Nakonechnyi’s feature-length debut, tells the story of Ukrainian aerial reconnaissance expert Lilia, who returns home to her family after spending months as a prisoner in Donbass, the eastern Ukrainian region that has been the site of a simmering conflict since 2014. Per the official synopsis: “The trauma of captivity continues to torment her and surface in dreamlike ways. Something growing deep within Lilia will not allow her to forget, yet she refuses to identify as a victim and will fight to liberate herself.”
Though several years in the making, Nakonechnyi’s first feature bows at a timely moment amid the ongoing onslaught by the Russian military in Ukraine. “When the war started, I realized that the film that we’ve been doing through all these years…is not about the past, but it is about the present,” said Bassel. “It is a film that tells you what consequences this war can have.
“To be able to present it in Cannes is very important because it’s our voice and Cannes gives us the great opportunity to be heard,” she added.