As the war in Ukraine approaches a grim, three-month mile marker, and the Russian military continues its relentless onslaught, the harsh crackdown on domestic opposition by the Putin regime has left a beleaguered film industry pondering its next steps. Many Russian filmmakers fear they’ll have no choice but to toe the party line, or to flee a country that is increasingly being shut out of the international community.
Two-time Oscar nominee Alexander Rodnyansky (“Leviathan,” “Loveless”), the Kyiv-born producer who has called Russia home for two decades, left Moscow on March 1 after being tipped off that his opposition to the war had landed him in the government’s crosshairs. “I cut off my business ties with Russia,” the producer tells Variety. “I left behind everything.”
While a full-fledged exodus is not yet underway, many filmmakers are rethinking their futures. “I can’t see how I can be part of a [Russian film] community that will be charged with ideological tasks and has to comply with it,” says one long-time producer, who’s wrapping up all Moscow-based operations. “I don’t want to be a taxpayer in that sort of Russia, as being a part of the Russian economy today means to fuel a war machine.”
The Russian industry’s growing presence on the Croisette will be greatly diminished when the Cannes Film Festival kicks off this week, after organizers decided to ban official state delegations from this year’s event. Though the festival opened the door for individual filmmakers to attend — with Cannes regular Kirill Serebrennikov’s latest, “Tchaikovsky’s Wife,” playing in competition — many Russian filmmakers say they will sit this one out. “I feel uncomfortable to go, under the given circumstances,” admits one veteran producer.
It’s a dramatic turnabout for an industry that before the Ukraine invasion had been steadily on the rise. A combination of government support, private equity and an arms race among domestic streaming platforms has fueled a production boom; Russian cinema’s international profile has never been higher. Both veteran filmmakers like Serebrennikov and newcomers like Kira Kovalenko — who won the Un Certain Regard Prize in Cannes last year for her sophomore feature “Unclenching the Fists” — have become fixtures on at Cannes, Venice and at other A festivals.
The swift and wide-ranging global response to the war, however, instantly turned Putin’s Russia into a pariah state, politically and economically cut off from the West. The film industry is reeling. Box office plunged after Hollywood studios pulled their Russian releases in the wake of the invasion. A financing and distribution model built on international cooperation is suddenly in shambles. “It’s not going to work like it was,” says a prominent filmmaker, who’s exploring ways with his European partners to produce his films outside of Russia. “You have to invent some new ways to do things.”
Amid global calls for a boycott of Russian cinema, however, the country’s filmmakers remain defiant, with Serebrennikov drawing a distinction between “real Russian culture” and the pro-Kremlin propaganda that supports war and the “paranoid ideology” of the Putin regime. “Russian culture is about the fragility of life. It’s about people who are under oppression. Who are fighting for truth or justice,” he says. “That’s real culture. Not ideological culture. Not propaganda. I think it’s not good to boycott this kind of culture.”
In a Russia that is increasingly turning inward, the space for subversive cinema is vanishing. Yet many filmmakers predict production to continue apace, with the government ramping up investment in the industry as international opportunities dwindle. “The producers who are prepared to produce what is being asked, they will receive more opportunities than they had before,” says the producer who is closing his Moscow offices.
To understand what the future of the Russian industry might look like, one might have to look to the past. “I believe the industry will see a thematic return to the Soviet era of filmmaking, with a heavy focus on uplifting comedies, and motivational sport dramas,” says producer Ilya Stewart, in Cannes with “Tchaikovsky’s Wife.” “It doesn’t seem likely that there will be a demand for art that mirrors reality…. [It will be] pure escapism. For which there will also be continued demand. The country has been through this cycle before.”