Screen grab: Russian cinema’s new patriotic agenda

Screen grab: Russian cinema's new patriotic agenda

The Ministry of Culture has announced that it is taking even closer control over film funding and pushing its own agenda. Samuel Crews questions the new policy

5 March 2013

Shooting is now underway on the third instalment of festive funfest Six Degrees of Celebration, Russia’s biggest blockbuster franchise. The first film (released 2010) was a family-friendly hit: think of Love Actually, with the head of state with a heart being played not by Hugh Grant, but by on-again-off-again President/Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Although Medvedev won’t be reprising the role this time round, politicians are still very much in the picture: the content of state-sponsored films like Six Degrees 3 is increasingly being determined from above, and it’s starting to hurt the Russian film industry.

The producer of Six Degrees (known as Yolki in Russian) is Timur Bekmambetov, last seen taking seriously historical liberties in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Before he skipped off stateside, Bekmambetov’s smash hit fantasy epic Night Watch (2004) kickstarted a new genre — the Russian blockbuster. And it wasn’t just filmmakers who took notice of his success: ever since the government has taken a keen interest in big-budget spectaculars and starry ensemble comedies, so as long as they push a “patriotic” agenda.

Trailers from Cinema Fund projects: the edited highlights

Like Love Actually, the Six Degrees of Celebration movies consist of a mass of subplots woven into an overarching feelgood fable. A transcontinental game of Chinese whispers is started when, to back up a claim that Medvedev is her father, orphan Varia has to get him to say “Father Frost helps those who help themselves” in his New Year’s Eve address to the nation. Her boyfriend, Vladimir (Vova for short), a firm believer in the power of connections, sets to work rushing the message to the president. Sure enough, thanks to the intervention of a friendly cop and a much-loved migrant worker, as well as a few A-list celebs, the message makes it in the nick of time.

Another message gets through too, one pushed by another Vova — Vladimir Putin. Like some Russophile Richard Curtis, the film wants to show that “love actually is all around us”, in a land of ethnic tolerance, solidarity and harmony.

“the Cinema Fund poured just over $150m a year into the industry”

State and cinema go way back in Russia. Long before noted film-fan Stalin staged screenings at his dacha, Lenin had argued that “for us the most important of all the arts is the cinema”. Now Putin has made it his mission to revive the ailing Russian film industry, and stir patriotic feelings at the same time. “Cinema,” he has said, “should be a constructive force that elevates audiences.”

The two Six Degrees of Celebrations, which were made with government money, have taken in $50m. Such seasonal hits not only elevate the audience, but also elevate the box office share of Russian features; for those at the top, that’s the only figure that matters. In 2012, homegrown films took 13.8% of total ticket sales, almost entirely thanks to state-backed blockbusters. Yet if homegrown can outstrip Hollywood in a country like France, a country that can’t even hold on to a cinematic giant like Gerard Depardieu (local films there took top spot in 2011 with a 41% share), then why not in Russia too?

In order to boost this percentage, the Russian government set up the semi-autonomous Cinema Fund in 2009, replete with swish purple branding and a complete lack of reference to Russia. The Cinema Fund poured just over $150m a year into the industry, most of which went to eight chosen production companies, on the condition that they make “commercial” films. (One of the main recipients was Nikita Mikhalkov, a colossus of Russian cinema who happens to be a close ally of Putin.)

“it was clearly intended to produce films that aped US blockbusters”

The Cinema Fund did exactly what was asked of it: it helped produce commercial, audience-friendly films. Although its brief was vague, it was clearly intended to produce films that aped US blockbusters, while also pushing a patriotic brand of Russianness. Nonetheless, quality still mattered, as can be seen by its international arthouse successes such as Elena by Andrey Zvyagintsev, winner of the special jury award at Cannes in 2011, or The Stoker by chernukha-king Alexei Balabanov. But despite 44% of total investment coming from the state in 2012, a huge rise from 19% two years ago, the Cinema Fund failed to produce an upturn in the crucial box office share. In fact, this figure declined from 15.9% in 2011 to 13.8% the following year.

To counter the slump, Vladimir Medinsky, the new minister of culture, announced late in 2012 that his department would exercise even tighter government control over film funding. The range of subjects that qualify for state money has been narrowed, “in line with the government’s strategic goals”, to include: the military, patriotic and historical dramas, films for children and teenagers, and “the exciting genre productions so beloved of audiences”. The government will also be holding a tender for a set number of made-to-order films on particular subjects. If you’ve got a cracking idea for a film on the 400-year anniversary of the Romanovs or the secrets of Russian diplomacy, do get in touch.

“a nationalist agenda and box office success don't go hand in hand”

So, instead of support for organic growth in the industry, we’re in for more expensive, short-sighted semi-propaganda. But a nationalist agenda and box office success don’t necessarily go hand in hand. So far, when faced with the heavily marketed rehashes of military history produced under the auspices of the Cinema Fund, viewers have voted with their feet, resulting in a sequence of patriotic box office failures. 1812: Ballad of Uhlans (2012), a romantic comedy set during the Russian defeat of Napoleon in the Battle of Borodino took just $1m on a $5m budget. Then there’s Mikhalkov’s exhausting World War Two epic, Burnt by the Sun 2, Russia’s most expensive film ($26m), and now its biggest flop.

It gets worse. Proposals are also going through parliament to introduce a quota on all cinemas, stipulating that one in five screenings must be a Russian film. More empty seats in front of bad films isn’t going to help anyone.

“the system will stifle local talent and drive audiences away”

The whole industry, including the export-friendly arthouse scene, will face the consequences of these short-term, nationalist politics. For all its failures, it was simply too early to say what impact an autonomous Cinema Fund was having after only three years. I was always hopeful that it would help develop a new generation of commercially minded filmmakers free from a government agenda. Perhaps I was too optimistic, but at least I was thinking long term. We’re now faced with a system that will stifle local talent and drive audiences away from cinemas and into the open arms of the illegal download market.

But, looking on the bright side, I can’t wait for some more tacky Russian remakes with a patriotic twist. How about a new take on Sex and the City, set in trendy downtown St Petersburg circa 1704, with seven-foot tsar Peter the Great as Mr Big? One thing is for sure: in light of the anti-gay propaganda laws going through parliament, a Russian Brokeback Mountain won’t be hitting screens anytime soon.

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