Kirill Serebrennikov Defends His Cannes Premiere as Ukrainian Industry Renews Calls for Russian Boycott

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One day after dissident Russian filmmaker Kirill Serebrennikov’s “Tchaikovsky’s Wife” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, members of the Ukrainian film industry took to the Croisette to call for a total boycott of Russian movies. Meanwhile, just steps away in the Palais des Festivals, the director’s long-awaited return to cinema’s grandest stage was overshadowed by questions about the festival’s controversial selection and over the film’s financial ties to Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich.

Speaking at a politically charged press conference on Thursday, Serebrennikov described Russia’s war in Ukraine as a “total catastrophe” but rejected calls for a boycott of Russian film. “I fully understand people who are calling for boycotts. I understand them because they’re so pained, so hurt by what is happening in the country,” he said.

But efforts to ban a nation’s culture, he added, were an “impossible” feat: “I believe we shouldn’t boycott language, we shouldn’t boycott Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Tchaikovsky, deprive people of music, the theater, cinema. On the contrary, this is what makes people feel alive.”

The director is making his first appearance in Cannes since the 2016 premiere of Un Certain Regard prize winner “The Student.” Serebrennikov was embroiled in a long-running legal battle after being charged with embezzlement, on what his supporters say were trumped-up charges, and he was barred from leaving Russia.

He was a no-show at the 2018 premiere of his rock drama “Leto,” which bowed in Cannes’ official competition, and he also missed the 2021 opening of “Petrov’s Flu,” another competition entry. He was granted permission to leave the country this March and has since relocated to Berlin.

His latest feature, which received a warm ovation at its world premiere in Cannes’ Grand Théâtre Lumière on Wednesday, was partly bankrolled by Abramovich’s $100 million Kinoprime film fund, which also helped finance “Petrov’s Flu.” The Russian-Israeli tycoon has been sanctioned by U.K. and other lawmakers for his allegedly close ties to Russian president Vladimir Putin. Despite the legal and financial uncertainty, Kinoprime CEO Anton Malyshev confirmed to Variety that the fund is still up and running.

Serebrennikov was unsparing on Thursday in his defense of Abramovich and his support for Russian culture. “He helps modern art and has for a long time. He has been a real patron and in Russia this patronage has always been deeply appreciated. It is thanks to him that we have the arthouse cinema,” said the director. He also called for sanctions against the oligarch to be lifted, noting that Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy had lobbied U.S. president Joe Biden on Abramovich’s behalf due to his role in Russia-Ukraine peace talks.

Since the announcement of Serebrennikov’s inclusion in the main competition, the Cannes Film Festival has faced a backlash at a time when many film festivals and cultural bodies — especially in Europe — have called for a boycott of Russian cinema. Cannes struck an uneasy compromise to ban official Russian state delegations, as well as any individuals with ties to President Putin, while allowing filmmakers such as Serebrennikov to attend.

Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux defended the decision last month, telling Variety: “We don’t give in to political correctness, we don’t give in to cultural boycott. We go on a case-by-case basis.”

That position doesn’t go far enough, according to many Ukrainian filmmakers on the Croisette.

“Some people, especially in Europe, want to separate culture and sports from politics. But Russia uses these as a soft power weapon which is just as powerful as military force,” said producer Andrew Fesiak. “With serious war crimes and genocide being committed in Ukraine by the Russian army, we feel strongly that anything and everything that is Russian must be cancelled.”

Speaking at a Cannes panel discussion on Thursday entitled “Cancelling Russian Culture: Cinema as an Instrument of Russian Propaganda and War,” the producer noted that many Ukrainian filmmakers have been forced to flee their homes or take up arms in the war against Russia, some paying with their lives. “How many more of our filmmakers will be killed in this war while Russian filmmakers happily show their movies to international audiences?” he said.

Asked whether a distinction should be made for filmmakers like Serebrennikov who have opposed the Putin regime, he replied that the director “is not opposition.”

“His whole career was financed by government money. They do not finance people who are opposition,” Fesiak said. Citing some of the Russian politicians and opposition figures who have met untimely ends after running afoul of the Kremlin, he added: “Real opposition in Russia is murdered.” (At Thursday’s press conference, Serebrennikov stressed that any money he received from Russia’s Ministry of Culture came before the country’s invasion of Ukraine, before such funding was considered “toxic.”)

While splashy premieres like Tom Cruise’s “Top Gun: Maverick” and Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis” (which bows May 25) have brought some pre-pandemic buzz back to the Croisette, the war in Ukraine and the rise of authoritarian rulers around the world have threatened to take some of the fizz out of the bubbly atmosphere in Cannes this week.

Zelenskyy made a special appearance via video link on the festival’s opening night, invoking Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator,” a satire of Nazism, to remind the audience of the powerful role movies can play. After he delivered an emotional speech, the Cannes crowd showered Zelenskyy with applause.

Elsewhere on Thursday, Lithuanian filmmaker Mantas Kvedaravicius’ Ukraine documentary “Mariupolis 2” received an emotional premiere in the presence of the late director’s partner, Hanna Bilobrova. Kvedaravicius was captured and killed in early April while shooting the film in the besieged city of Mariupol, allegedly by Russian forces. Bilobrova, credited as a co-director, was able to rescue his footage and work alongside editor Dounia Sichov to complete the film.

The official selection at this year’s Cannes Film Festival includes several notable titles from Ukrainian directors, including “The Natural History of Destruction,” the latest from celebrated documentary filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa, which world premieres as part of Cannes’ Special Screenings, and “Butterfly Vision,” the directorial debut of Maksim Nakonechnyi, which bows in Un Certain Regard.

The Cannes Marché du Film is also hosting a wide-ranging Ukraine in Focus program for Ukrainian filmmakers and producers over two days during the festival, on May 21 and 22.