Boycotting Russia is not that simple — just ask the film industry

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The invasion of Ukraine has led to war not just on the battlefield, but in the areas of trade and culture as well. The troops rolled in. Global corporations stopped doing business in Russia. At the same time, cultural bodies like the Ukrainian Film Academy called for the international film community to boycott Russian films.اضافة اعلان

Just days after Vladimir Putin’s tanks crossed the border, I received a request to sign a petition calling on film festivals to ban films produced by Russia. It also demanded that the International Federation of Film Producers Associations expel Moscow International Film and that producers and distributors stop working with or in Russia.

Reading it, I could not help but cast my mind back to Danish-Palestinian director Mahdi Fleifel’s short film, “I Signed the Petition”. 

In this film, Fleifel reflects on his decision to sign a petition that called on British rock supergroup Radiohead to cancel its July 2017 gig in Israel. Luminaries such as two-time Palme d’Or winner Ken Loach had also signed.

A few days later, Fleifel is in existential flux. He wonders if he has done the right thing by signing. Did he do the right thing by going public with his support? Does he want to get into talking politics? Will his signature make any difference?

The Ukraine petition has had interesting reactions from the film community. Stockholm Film Festival announced it would not be selecting Russian films. Other festivals put on special screenings of Ukrainian films in solidarity. The Glasgow Film Festival pulled two Russian films, “No Looking Back”, a dark comedy crime film directed by Kirill Sokolov, and the thriller “The Execution”, directed by Lado Kvataniya.

There was a social media backlash against Glasgow’s decision. People argued that the withdrawal of the films suggested that the festival regarded these Russian directors as agents of Putin, pushing Russia’s propaganda messages.

The Glasgow Film Festival team felt the need to clarify the reasons for the withdrawal. It was not because of the directors’ nationality, but because “both films received state funding via the CF Cinema Fund, whose board of trustees includes current ministers of the Russian government and the Russian Ministry of Culture”.

The Cannes Film Festival said Russian films submitted to the festival would be judged on a case-by-case basis. Official Russian delegations would not be welcome to attend, nor anyone linked to the Russian government. However, the festival praised the courage of Russian “artists and film professionals who have never ceased to fight against the contemporary regime, who cannot be associated with these unbearable actions”.

Other festivals such as Venice and San Sebastian have taken a similar approach to Cannes. It highlights the problem with blanket bans. If everyone is excluded, you may also curtail voices you want to support. It is not always easy to know where to draw the line, and there are always exceptions that make a mockery of a general rule.

Calls to action can have unintended consequences. Sergei Loznitsa, the award-winning Ukrainian filmmaker of “Donbass”, resigned his membership in the European Film Academy because he felt that the EFA’s statement condemning Russia was not strongly worded. The EFA responded by banning Russian films from competing at this year’s awards.

Loznitsa then argued against outright bans on Russian artists.

“We must not judge people based on their passports,” he said. “We can judge them on their acts.” For this stance, the director has now been expelled from the Ukrainian Film Academy.
Individual voices of dissent also matter – and filmmakers often find ways to tell their stories in the most difficult of circumstances
Loznitsa’s statement on passports is something I strongly believe in. But then, I also hear the pleas of others in the film industry whose homes are under threat. Andriy Khalpakhchi, director of the Kyiv-based Molodist International Film Festival, argued: “The only way to change the fascist regime of Putin’s Russia is complete isolation of Russian society, Russian culture and sports.”

Throw in the messages from the people in the film industry who I know, whose families are in danger, or the pain on the face of my cleaner, whose brother has decided to join the Ukrainian army, and it makes me wonder if I should not just sign the petition and be done with it. But will I then feel remorse, as Fleifel did? 

Looking at the petition on a macro level highlights how influential art can be in bringing about change. The petition calls into question our behavior and individual actions that can exert pressure, even on one of the most powerful governments in the world. So I am glad that the petition exists, even if I have doubts about a blanket ban.

Individual voices of dissent also matter – and filmmakers often find ways to tell their stories in the most difficult of circumstances. One only has to look at the plethora of Iranian filmmakers who have managed to express dissent through their cinema. Some, like Jafar Panahi, continued to do so, even after being arrested or banned from filmmaking. The films of Abbas Kiarostami, and more recently Asghar Farhadi, provide a window into Iran and some of the dissent and confusion there. These works are invaluable to increasing our understanding of the country, especially as they are voices from the inside.

Of course there should be action against films that are mere propaganda, but it should not be at the cost of stopping those directors who criticize their systems from being heard.

I am not sure the petition that I was asked to sign makes this distinction clear enough. Nonetheless, every morning when I turn on the news and see the war going on, I am forced to ask myself: Is today the day that I sign that petition?

The writer is a film critic, author of the biography “Spike Lee: That’s My Story and I’m Sticking to It”, and director of International Programming for the Red Sea International Film Festival.

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