The United States and the broader community of NATO allies have responded to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine by swiftly severing most economic links with Russia. Major corporations have ceased doing business with Russia, including ExxonMobil, Ford, Nike, Starbucks, and Disney.
Maintaining a hard line against Putin is wise because the Russian leader should face severe consequences for his bloody invasion which has killed hundreds of civilians. Economic isolation and ostracism from the international community is a fitting sentence for his continuing crimes against humanity.
However, the collective boycott of Russian artists has had the unintended consequence of marginalizing Russian culture and suppressing the free expression of the Russian people. Russian filmmakers have been especially negatively impacted as they have been abruptly banned from participation in international film and television events, including the Cannes Film Festival and the Glasgow Film Festival (which dropped the films No Looking Back (2021) and The Execution (2021) because they received Russian state funding). On top of the removals from international film festivals, the National Association of Television Program Executives has banned Russia from attending its international trade event scheduled for June in Budapest, Hungary. Some film festivals, however, including the Toronto International Film Festival and the Venice Film Festival, are barring Russian state delegations but are still admitting independent Russian filmmakers.
It is important to note that even independent Russian films have some level of state funding and that much of the available in-country private film funding has Kremlin ties such as Kinoprime, the $100 million fund of recently sanctioned Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich. While one might argue that projects are defined by their patrons, it is short-sighted to assume that the presence of Russian state or state-related funding means that a film is an instrument of government propaganda. Rather, these films are the creative output of individuals who found a way to navigate a complex internal network and a repressive environment to share their nuanced and sometimes controversial viewpoints. If we ban talented Russian filmmakers from international film festivals, we run the risk of silencing voices seeking to rise above authoritarianism.
Ukraine, not surprisingly has actively advocated for the barring of Russians from international film and television events. The Ukrainian Film Academy started a petition on Change.org where it urged the international film community to boycott Russian cinematography using the argument that the presence of a Russian film “boosts the spread of propaganda messages and distorted facts” and “creates the illusion of Russia’s involvement in the values of the civilized world.”
Interestingly enough, the banning of Russian content has also led to a greater showcasing of Ukrainian cinema. The Stockholm International Film Festival, for example, will be screening Ukrainian films, hosting Ukrainian directors, and conducting “master classes” about the history of Ukrainian cinema. The Swiss documentary film festival Visions du Réel will also be showing four Ukrainian documentaries.
Switzerland’s Locarno Film Festival, which announced that it will still welcome Russian filmmakers to its festival, summarizes well the compelling argument for not excluding them:
We believe that cinema is a vital tool to sustain diversity and creativity in all nations. So we have decided we will continue to welcome in our program all films that enable us to sharpen our critical gaze on the world and cinema and foster the meeting of persons and peoples. It would be a mistake, in our view, to impose systematic or preventive boycotts of works from Russia, often involving films already subject to censorship and other restrictions in their country of origin.
Russia has enriched our collective cultural fabric for centuries with its literature, art, music, and cinema, which has often been conceived in the shadow of an authoritarian government. If the purpose of film is to illuminate the struggles and the triumphs of the human experience, Russia’s contemporary filmmakers should continue to have the opportunity to add their stories to our global canon.
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