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Russia’s year of cinema: a return to silent films

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In Russia, 2016 has been designated the Year of Cinema. But any new films are likely to be ‘silent’, lacking any voice of their own. Русский

Eleonora Zbanke
3 February 2016

Russia’s cinema industry has entered 2016 encumbered with an unprecedented variety of instruments of censorship. When I was a student at the prestigious All-Russian State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK), lecturers used to tell us about the difficulties faced by directors in the Soviet years. The impossibility of showing one’s films at international festivals or having them appear on general release; the screenplays gathering dust in drawers for decades.

Soviet directors learned how to use gentle satire to criticise the system — the work of Eldar Ryazanov is a prime example. Ryazanov’s 1975 comedy The Irony of Fate about a Moscow doctor who winds up in Leningrad on a New Year’s Eve bender without realising his mistake (the apartment buildings and their interiors are all identical, such is the logic of the planned economy) has become a national institution. It’s still shown on TV every year. Ryazanov’s death in November 2015, at the age of 88, marked the end of an era.

Nowadays, I thought, we can talk openly about anything, and the possible only barrier between me and my audience in our new capitalist reality is a lack of money

All of that seemed to me like the dark ages: nowadays, I thought, we can talk openly about anything, and the possible only barrier between me and my audience in our new capitalist reality is a lack of money. But I was wrong. Today’s Russia has no shortage of ways to make life difficult for independent film-makers, and it starts at film school.

Reality, or filth?

In 2010, I made my second short, ‘The Birthday’, about a girl whose life goes wrong because she has been sexually abused by her father. The film isn’t about incest: it’s about freeing yourself from your past, and how you can and must move on. I saw it as an optimistic piece.

Before students’ screenplays are accepted for production they have to be approved by all departments. I got permission from all except one; the sound department banned all of its students from working on my film. This meant that I would have to make the film without sound. When I asked the department head why she wouldn’t pass my film, she replied: ‘I don’t want my students involved in this filth.’ Filth? There isn’t a single shot depicting a sexual act in the film, not even a kiss. And it wasn’t a made up story, but a very personal one — my own.

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On the set of 'Prozrenie' (dir. Eleonora Zbanke). Photograph courtesy of the author. The answer was still: ‘No’. I had to shoot with just the camera microphone and re-record the sound in post-production. I ended up with a film, but the sound was so bad that I never showed it to anyone. Back in the day, when Ryazanov’s films said more about Russia than any news programme, the rock group Aquarium used to sing, ‘I spent 10 years doing the sound for a film, but it was still silent.’ Who could have guessed that 35 years later, these words would be true again.

I realise that the Head of the Sound Department acted out of fear of a ‘forbidden subject’ — the same fear that held back many artists in the Soviet Union, and that should have disappeared with its demise, but is still there. This was my first encounter with censorship.

Tomorrow

In 2014, I began a crowdfunding campaign to make a new film, to be called ‘Tomorrow’. I wanted to tell the story of a Lesbian couple bringing up a child in the atmosphere of increasing homophobia after the ‘Gay propaganda’ law was passed the previous year.

By that point, a film I had made on an LGBT subject had been shown at 22 international festivals, so I thought I would have no difficulty in raising money and bringing attention to this important story. I began my campaign by sending hundreds of letters asking for help with publicity. I was prepared for a critical response from colleagues, accusing me of going commercial, as well as from homophobes.

Are we losing this window of freedom that we know as ‘independent cinema’? 

But what I didn’t expect was a confrontation with the Russian LGBT community, which is paralysed with fear. One person said it wasn’t newsworthy; another that I would have problems making it; a third that they liked the screenplay but didn’t want to be involved. I did get support from NGOs and LGBT communities outside Russia, but in the end I couldn’t raise enough money to shoot the film.

I still believed that cinema was an important and essential medium, but increasingly found myself asking whether anyone in Russia felt the same. My screenplay is still lying in a drawer.

How not to get funding

Russian cinema receives funding chiefly from government grants. But to receive one of these grants, you need to be part of the mainstream. Here, for example, are some of the subjects approved by the Ministry of Culture in 2015: ‘Crimea and Ukraine in the thousand-year history of the Russian state’; ‘Russia’s military glory: victors and victories’ and ‘Family values as the dedrock of Russian society’.

To receive a government grant, you need to be part of the mainstream

So if I don’t want to make a film about Crimea’s history as part of the Russian state, or look at family values from a different angle, I won’t be entitled to any money from the state. But even those directors who have been making, or are now making films, can no longer feel secure: in December 2014, Russia’s Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky announced that ‘no film that discredits the image of Russia will be given state funding’.

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A still from 'Prozrenie' (dir. Eleonora Zbanke). Photograph courtesy of the author.The state’s diktat covers more than just ideological control of finances. Privately funded independent films can also be prevented from reaching cinema screens. A 2014 government directive on the awarding and cancellation of distribution certificates gives the Ministry of Culture the right to deny a film general release without giving any explanation. There is, however, a formal list of reasons for this denial:

‘The film contains material breaking the law on counter-terrorist and counter-extremist activity’; ‘it contains information on the means and methods of development and preparation of narcotic substances’; ‘it promotes pornography, the cult of violence and cruelty’; ‘it contains foul language and other elements that infringe legislation.’

In other words, any independent film-maker can find their film denied release and themselves threatened with administrative or even criminal charges. In 2015, a number of western films (including Gaspar Noé’s Love and Daniel Espinosa’s Child 44) failed to get distribution certificates.

Russian-made films were also affected by the new censorship: Alyona Polunina’s documentary ‘Varya’, about a Moscow woman who came out in support of Ukraine at the height of the 2014 conflict, was denied a distribution certificate for ‘showing the activities of extremist organisations’.

Are we losing this window of freedom that we know as ‘independent cinema’? This is the question facing me and my film-maker friends. Am I prepared to compromise? No. I don’t want to play cat and mouse with the authorities. So at the start of 2015 I decided to leave Russia. Not permanently. I have projects that have to be filmed in Russia. I will get my head together, gain strength, knowledge and experience and then I will return.

Meanwhile, this year I shall be filming a satirical web serial and a documentary about émigrés. I have no financial support, but I don’t need any: over the years I have learned how to make films for next to nothing. I have the right to talk about the things that are important to me and I have an audience ready to listen. I shall continue my work and I believe that I shall be heard, even in Russia.

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