Boycott, war and cinema
The issue of boycotting Russian films arose surprisingly quickly after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine. Calls and urges by Ukrainian filmmakers emerged in the very first days, when we were completely stunned by the absurdity and barbarity of the Russian invasion (that doesn’t mean the latest developments aren’t just as shocking). It’s very interesting that, amidst our existential crises, – both for Ukrainians and the rest of the world – the calls for boycott have come to concern people outside our “bubble”. Which may be a sign that the power of cinema is still alive. Or a sign that this war is also a war of communication, of perception, of how reality is depicted. In any case, the boycott of Russian films reminded us of some essential things about the political dimension of cinema, as well as its ethical dimension. And among so much bad news, this debate may bring something good into our cultural landscape. [With a few exceptions and apart from the initiatives in the independent theater sector, in the last 20 years, Romanian filmmakers have been reluctant to take political positions in their films. There may be several explanations for that: the legacy of “resistance through culture” practiced during the communist regime, the lingering memory of the opportunistic and sterile anti-communism that marked the ‘90s, the ideological neutrality that defines cinematic minimalism, or even the public’s refusal to consume political debate through film, at the cinema.]
Returning to the boycott, at the center of this cultural conflict lie the exploits of Sergei Loznitsa, probably the best-known Ukrainian filmmaker of our times. In just three weeks, the contradictions around the issue have escalated.
The Loznitsa case. To be or not to be a Ukrainian filmmaker.
On February 23rd, the European Film Academy (EFA) issued a statement saying that “The invasion in Ukraine is heavily worrying us”. On February 28, Loznitsa resigned from the Academy, criticizing its euphemisms and the fact that it didn’t have the courage to openly condemn Russia. [“The West’s weakness”, its lack of firm reaction after the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of the Donbas in 2014, and even its complicity (at least in terms of commerce) with Putin’s regime are recurring themes in President Zelensky’s speeches.] Seeking to rectify its stand, the EFA adopted a radical measure the following day and excluded Russia from the European Film Awards. Loznitsa’s reaction came shortly after, saying that he didn’t ask for that and that he was against the boycott of Russian filmmakers who spoke out against the war: “They are victims as we are of this aggression”. On March 18, he was excluded from the Ukrainian Film Academy (UKA), which offered several reasons for this decision: by declaring himself “a man of the world”, Loznitsa was guilty of an ambiguous, cosmopolitan position. But given the full-scale war launched by Russia against Ukraine – says the UKA –, it’s every Ukrainian’s duty to proclaim their national identity as the “key concept” of their rhetoric. Finally, the UKA “appeals to the world community with a request not to position Sergei Loznitsa as a representative of the Ukrainian cultural sphere”. The next day, Loznitsa responded on Facebook, stating that the Academy’s decision is “a gift to the Kremlin propagandists” and that the demonization of cosmopolitanism sounds very much like something out of the 1950s Stalinist rhetoric. And this is pretty much the timeline of this conflict, which from March 19 until the moment I’m writing this text, hasn’t recorded any other events. But there are several dilemmas lying in the aforementioned twists and turns. How does one define a Ukrainian filmmaker? What defines a Russian film? Can we talk about collective responsibility when referring to the entire film and artistic community of a country? And if so, when does this responsibility apply: starting with the outbreak of the war, after the first Russian aggression against Ukraine in 2014, since the installation of the Putin regime?
Blood, language, passport.
The Ukrainian Film Academy regards national identity as a higher value, if not unique, in this war. But it must be doubled by full adherence to the national cause. Extending the argument, can one be a “good” Romanian, Ukrainian or Russian filmmaker if they’re of mixed blood? What if you belong to another religion? Or if you speak Hungarian? Or if, God forbid, you have a different skin color? There are voices in Romania that would say “no” without even a hint of hesitation. Whatever you do. And let’s not forget that our country is at peace.
Language and culture could round off the definition of national identity, although, in this space, the Ukrainian and Russian languages have coexisted and been used together since… forever. And the population transfers that have happened throughout history, Russian colonialism and the redrawing of borders, first by the Tsarist Empire and then by the USSR, mixed things up even more. One of the films that best illuminates this identity confusion is Vitali Mansky’s Rude (Rodnye, Germany-Latvia, 2016), in which the director – born in Lviv and educated in Moscow – visits his scattered family in Ukraine and in Russia, having to deal with grudges and prejudice on both sides: people of the same blood cannot agree on their own identity or whose culture or country they are loyal to. In peacetime, I believe this mix is precious, something that needs to be cherished. In times of war, however, it seems to become an obstacle that needs to be eliminated. It’s one of the reasons why war is so terrible.
In post-2014 Ukraine, under Russia’s existential threat, it was natural for the national idea to gain ground. Putin’s war, with all its horrors and injustices, only accentuates the nation-building process. At the risk of upsetting my Ukrainian and Georgian friends, I must say that I saw with my own eyes how this process worked in Abkhazia, while shooting Tarzan’s Testicles, even though in the case of this small separatist republic in the Caucasus the political equation it’s completely different.
And there’s the passport – the third element that could define the national identity of a filmmaker. Citizenship is a not-so-popular concept in these parts. At least not in its French, Republican sense. Citizenship is a broader concept than ethnicity, which also includes civic participation or adherence to the values of a cultural-political space. The Ukrainian sheriffs in Roman Bondarchuk’s film (Ukrainian Sheriffs, Ukraine-Latvia-Germany, 2015) are examples of citizens “in the making”, forged under the pressure of the war in Donbas.
Loznitsa says that establishing identity on a national basis devalues the civic and political attitude of everyone, their love of freedom and democracy. It’s not the passport or the more or less pure blood of a filmmaker that matters. But their human values. Their individual choices. “As far as I am concerned, it is not about being Russian,” he says. “It is about being a decent person, a moral person, or being an indecent person and an immoral person.” Okay, yes, but it could be argued that being a decent man in Russia today has become almost impossible. It’s even more difficult to be a decent intellectual or artist in today’s Russia.
Money, stance, complicity.
The second criterion in UKA’s decision to exclude Loznitsa is the adherence to the Ukrainian cause, the adoption of a firm anti-war position and against Putin’s Russia. Here things are clearer and even necessary. The logical consequence of this stance is a boycott based on collective responsibility: all Russian filmmakers are to blame for the atrocities committed by the Moscow regime. One way or another, they all allowed this regime to get to this point. Except for those who speak out against the war from inside Russia.
This stance doesn’t consider the increasingly brutal repression by the Putin regime against any dissenting voices, the thousands of arrests and the shutdown of all independent media channels. [On March 31, Art Doc Fest, the most important documentary film festival in Moscow – presided by the same Vitali Mansky – was banned 15 minutes before its first screening. And that’s after all the films related to Ukraine had been removed from the program.] Who among us can lecture the Russian directors who for one reason or another still live in Russia? Let’s not forget how many Romanian artists or intellectuals chose to stay in the country and manifested themselves publicly during the Ceaușescu period, directly incriminating the political regime and its leader. On the other hand, it is true that there are very few voices in Russian cinema who have spoken out against the war, even among the filmmakers who emigrated from Russia.
When it comes to films, their national identity is dictated not only by the author but also by the origin of the money. Which makes film funding a criterion to be taken into consideration: there has been no editorial independence in Putin’s Russia for some time now. All cultural funds in Russia are subject to censorship. However, major festivals (Berlin, Cannes, Venice) said in mid-March that they would accept films made by Russian filmmakers if the source of funding is not mentioned. The only restriction seems to apply to the presence of official Russian delegations at the festival.
Where does the complicity of an artist, director, or intellectual with the authoritarian regime in which they live begin and end? Making a film in Russia today that ignores the reality of the war or the criminality of the Moscow regime is, after all, unacceptable. Being a Russian director and applying to one of Russia’s cultural funds – or reaching out to a Russian oligarch that is part of Putin’s ecosystem – is immoral. As a Russian director, it would be acceptable, probably, to get money for a film about the life of an isolated community in Siberia or how people in the Arctic Circle are affected by climate change. But in today’s world, it’s best to keep quiet. Living in a bloody dictatorship has never been easy.
As a festival programmer, showcasing such films seems just as immoral, in my opinion. Can you, in all conscience, screen contemporary Russian poetic films, like the ones we too consumed here in the ’80s? What’s more, would you want to do a Tarkovsky retrospective now (not to mention Nikita Mikhalkov)? With all due respect to the Russian director’s value in the history of cinema, I would watch Andrei Rublev with different eyes given the Russian mystical-national discourse that pervades the film. At the beginning of the war, there was talk about the possibility of banning Dostoevsky, which caused quite the outrage. But, yes, in his political texts, Dostoevsky is a supporter of authoritarian orthodox ultra-nationalism. Perhaps this thing deserves to be mentioned more often in the prefaces. The same goes for Eminescu: when we embrace him as a poet, there is no need to hide the xenophobic filth in his journalistic texts.
Patriotism, critical thinking, cinema.
I have often heard, from both authorities and citizens, that the image of our country has been tarnished by Romanian filmmakers in their films. This is probably one of the major reasons why our political class (as well as a big part of the public) doesn’t recognize the achievements of Romanian cinema and prefers to ignore them, instead of capitalizing on them. Of course, Ukraine is at war, and we are not. There the situation forces you to see things in black and white. But where does self-censorship begin and end? Is it better to hide or embellish things so that the enemy will not use them against you?
The filmmaker’s political position must be clear. The moral relativism in which many of our public intellectuals bathe is not acceptable (see also the false parallelism between Putin and Zelensky in the recent interview with Cristi Puiu ). But how this adhesion should be shown in their films is a different issue. The UKA’s statement regarding Loznitza’s expulsion hides in plain sight their indignation towards the nuances and ambiguities of some films that do not have the “necessary clarity and rigidity”.
The argument mentions that filmmakers are like ambassadors of their countries so they need to be responsible for their public message. On the other side of the war, Russian athletes have been eliminated from a significant number of competitions on the same criteria: they are ambassadors of a criminal government. But can filmmakers really be seen as ambassadors, even in a state of war? The answer is that in times of war and unjustified, barbaric invasion, you must distinguish good from absolute evil. But film is a different kind of politics. When Loznitsa talks about the involvement of a number of Ukrainians in the crimes committed by the Nazis in 1941 (in his film Baby Yar. Context, Netherlands-Ukraine, 2021), I honestly think that what he is doing is a must. It’s a patriotic act to unravel history, with all its nuances, and take responsibility for what happened.
History, propaganda, lack of culture.
There are few Romanian directors who have tackled similar topics. Radu Jude’s (I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, 2018) and Florin Iepan’s (Odessa, 2013) films are among the few titles that talk about the Romanian army’s actions on Ukrainian territory during the Second World War II. In Romania, both were received with various negationist arguments, if not insults. Iepan had tried to reach then-President Traian Băsescu in order to obtain an official condemnation of the 1941 Odessa massacre. To no avail, to this day.
On the other side, in Russia, talking about Stalinist crimes is taboo (in December 2021, the Russian government dissolved the most prestigious organization investigating the communist past, Memorial ). It’s not taboo in our country, as long as the clichés of the anti-communism parade are not brought into discussion. Neither Romania nor Russia has gone through a cathartic process of revisiting their recent history. Perhaps this explains why the public in both countries is so vulnerable to the poison spilled in social media, to the lies spread by the Russian propaganda machine, but also to the falsehoods spread by local far-right influencers. Against an old Russophobic background, strengthened by the annexation of Bessarabia and the Soviet occupation, the Romanian public is poorly prepared to understand this war, but also to integrate its contradictions: on the one hand, Russia is good, because it stands up to “The perverted West, which has forgotten its Christian values”; on the other hand, Russia is bad, more in a historical sense, because it occupied us and inflicted the communism regime on our country.
Lately, I have often wondered how it is possible for people to be so certain that the photos of victims killed in Bucha, near Kyiv, are staged, but at the same time to watch with such conviction a show where the images are taken from a video game.
The cure lies not in more historical propaganda – with films à la Sergiu Nicolaescu – but in having more critical films, in adopting clearer political positions by the filmmakers. The crisis we are going through is a good opportunity for a change of direction.
To the same extent, the boycott of Russian films won’t solve the problem if it’s applied collectively. But applying it on a case-by-case basis, with reason and a critical spirit, will shield us from all the lies and poisonous stuff, as well as from immoral – even if involuntary – involvement in the war, on the side of the aggressors.
P.S. Maybe we should just stick to helping those affected by the war in any way we can rather than decide what or who should be boycotted. To support Ukrainian films and filmmakers, go to https://docudays.ua/eng/help/. It’s very important that they stay alive while they are documenting what is happening there.
- “Today, on February 28, 2022, there can be no more doubt about one thing: the European Film Academy was set up in 1989 in order to bury its head in the sand and to shy away from the catastrophe which is taking place in Europe.” – Screen Daily: https://www.screendaily.com/news/ukraines-sergei-loznitsa-resigns-from-efa-criticises-academys-response-to-invasion/5168145.article?fbclid=IwAR01wUo4ggFumd0Xx1c6nuN-sDdhKkgUSBbjzhgxiw3eU_JIIua2vz-Pjzw#.YhzkOCDh6u0.facebook
- Geoffrey Macnab, “Ukrainian film-maker Sergei Loznitsa: ‘Lies bring us to the catastrophe we are facing today’”, in Financial Times, 28.02.2022: https://www.ft.com/content/6918b609-2d2d-4fe0-be08-65e9c40962d7?fbclid=IwAR0rKJT3QCATdSVuJGXz4i2TM-DqzNm-A4Wl_NDHwxLfvw8ObGOQqW6cgmE
- “The afternoon break”, program by Doru Popovici, Radio AS Suceava, 10.03.2022: https://youtu.be/0Q0UnQhZQKI, de la 28’:50” la 43’:40”.