Back to the Soviet

in 35th Moscow International Film Festival

by Alexandra Zawia

With Rosie, Matterhorn, and FIPRESCI Prize winner Memories They Told Me, the 35th Moscow International Film Festival screened three gay-themed films in its international competition program. Apparently, that was too manymovies on this volatile subject for Russians to take, including a hostile local press. A prominent Moscow newspaper called for program director Kirill Razlogov to resign and attacked the fest for its “bad program”. What’s behind that, really? And what are the additional problems facing MIFF?

I sat down with festival director Nikita Mikhalkhov and program director Kirill Razlogov, and got some frank, interesting answers.

I am not going to lie. The Moscow Film Festival’s international competition program, typified by the 16 selections for 2013, is nothing you would watch beginning to end if you weren’t on a jury. But a problem of first-rate competition films is something that Moscow shares with every other “A-list” film festival on the global map which isn’t Cannes, Venice or Berlin. The prestigious film premieres claimed by this powerful triumvirate doesn’t leave much for the “A” rest. Inevitably, there are not enough good films left to build a quality competition for anyone else, Moscow included.

Moscow could give up its “A”-list status, but that would wipe it off the map completely, So program director Kirill Razlogov and festival director Nikita Mikhalkhov do what they consider the best strategy for a success: some good new international films, some excellent retrospectives, but also “A” list celebrities to thrill locals and grab international attention. 2013 was the year of Gerard Depardieu and Brad Pitt.

Perhaps more than any other European film festival, the Moscow fest can not be regarded separately from the city, from the country it’s taking place in, and from the clearly repressive political atmosphere it breathes. Where only recently the government under president Putin passed a law against the “propaganda of homosexual content”,applauded by the powerful Orthodox Church, it’s noteworthy that the festival showed, in competition, these three gay-themed films:

(1) Rosie by Swiss director Marcel Gisler. Lorenz (Fabian Krüger), an openly gay and internationally successful author, is forced to interrupt a book tour for a prolonged visit to his mother’s after she has suffered a stroke. Staying in his childhood home in a small village, Lorenz reunites with his estranged sister, meets old acquaintances, and eventually falls in love with the much younger son of their neighbors. There are several man-on-man sex scenes, usual for world cinema, but not for Russia. Gisler’s film, to a non-homophobic eye, actually says more about the realization of age, courage, honesty, strength and limits than, in particular, about being gay.

(2) Matterhorn by Holland’s Diederik Ebbinge. Everything is built up towards a “coming out” of the main protagonist and the melting down of barriers. Extremely uptight Theo (René van t’Hof), a must-follow-all-rules-kind-of-citizen, lives, confined to his own rigid company, in a small, Church-dominated Dutch town. His wife has died and he’s broken with his homosexual son, who works as a performer in a gay club. But suddenly one day, a very odd stranger, Fred (Ton Kas), invades the town and Theo’s home, and they end up living together. The stranger doesn’t talk, imitates goats and sheep, likes to wear dresses, and tends to hug Theo impulsively at random occasions. Yet Theo puts up with it, as emotions are something he realizes he’s missing in his life. Going against the local Protestant Church’s traditionalteachings, the two men decide to “marry”.

The fact that, at the Moscow Film Festival, this movie won two awards from organizations of Russian critics and, more important, the festival’s audience award, appears somewhat conflicting with the overall reaction of the (pro-Putin?) local press which generally did not approve of MIFF’s programming. Maybe some Russian intellectuals and liberal festival goersdo sense that homophobia puts them out of touch with much of the sophisticated world. And Matterhorn makes it quite easy to endorse the relationship of Fred and Theo, as it comes without any kissing, touching, sex.

(3) Memories They Told Me by Brazilian director, Lúcia Murat. Turns and changes have always been at the basis of Brazilian Murat’s work, and her new filmdeals with the troubled political past of the 60s and 70s, and how it affects the present of her country. At times she is impressionistic, at times she uses semi-documentary, and overall Murat maintains an intimate perspective, drawing from her personal background as a committed leftist activist. She captures the lives of the post-guerilla intelligentsia in today’s Rio de Janeiro by reflecting on the lives of their children also, the theoretical “beneficiaries” of their parents’ revolution. Among them are a gay artist and his boyfriend. On screen, they show affection, they kiss often, and they have sex. At the Moscow screening, the last scene was greeted with loud comments from the audience and much nervous, disapproving laughter.

However, a pro-gay platform or any opposition to Putin’s line of policy in that matter, was decidedly not what MIFF director Nikita Mikhalkov had in mind when he consented to his programmer Kirill Razlogov’s choice of those films in competition.

“I don’t mean it as a kind of protest”, Mikhalkov tells me during our interview. “I absolutely agree that, for children, films dealing with homosexuality are not logical, and I agree that they should not be part of daily Russian life. But still, at a film festival, we cannot refuse those films. We cannot be like Putin in this matter.” Suddenly, Mikhalkov asks me: “Do you like it?” “What?” — “Homosexuality.” — I answer: “I like people to be free and cinema to be able to say what it wants to say.” Pause. “Do you like it?” — “No”, Mikhalkov says. “But we should not judge such films from an ideological point of view.”

“It is commonly known that you and president Putin are close friends”, I continue, and Mikhalkov interrupts me: “But no homosexual connection there!”, and laughs. “But do you have to ask him for permission to screen gay-themed films?”, I ask, and Mikhalkov laughs again: “If I had to ask him that, it would mean that Russia is so well off that he didn’t have any other problems to care about.”

Kirill Razlogov, the fest’s chief programmer, on the other hand, does acknowledge to me what he calls an “internal censorship”: “If there is a film that could harm the reputation of Mikhalkov or Putin, as they are close friends, we will not show it. Mikhalkov will not tell me not so show it, but I will be careful not to select it, when I know he would really consider it ‘harmful’ in a way, to his person, to the festival, whatever. But if it’s a film that he just doesn’t like, I don’t mind, I show it anyway.”

Razlogov tells me that the festival’s budget is the equivalent of three million dollars from state government money. “And then there is also a sponsorship part”, he says, “which is not openly talked about. But it’s one third of the state budget, a million dollars. We should have absolute freedom, no financial and no ideological control. But the truth is, we are back to the 70s of the last century: A strict system which resembles the Communist party control. But still the festival is a piece of freedom, like the festival was in Soviet times, [when] films that were not permitted were screened there.”

Since 1999, when Mikhalkov and Ralzogov took over the Festival, they have managed to establish it as a yearly event, as opposed to a two-year-course before. However, their artistic ambitions have met with acute bureaucratic problems. Razlogov explains: “The festival is newly budgeted each year. Every year there is a new call for tenders. Which means, until [the budget] is decided, there is nobody working on the festival. So, in fact, we are putting up the program within two to three months. We really start working at the end of February, during Berlinale. The first money comes in April, the festival is in June. It’s really impossible.”

It seems obvious that the fest could concentrate its energies on a strong Eastern European presence, or at least build up the Russian program, to attract international press. Indeed, in this year’s program there was an entire section dedicated to new Russian films only — except all the films were screened without subtitles. Too bad for foreigners at the fest. “I apologize for this”, Mikhalkov says. “We are working on it. It’s mainly a technical problem and costly.”

With around 100 new Russian fiction films produced per year, the industry does seem quite healthy. “About 60 to 70 of those films go to the cinemas”, Razlogov says. “The rest go directly to TV and DVD. There is a group of young directors who just want to make money, so they make comedies and try to copy big Hollywood productions. Plus, the majority of the Russian audience is not cinephile. They are not ready to ‘suffer’ the effort of understanding a film. They suffer enough in real life.”

Mikhalkov describes the situation similarly, and by that also affirms the general atmoshpere of intransparency which seems to be surrounding all areas of Russian life: “In Russia, nothing follows logical principles. In the Soviet era, there were 3000 cinemas in Russia, they worked well, because nobody had Internet. Cinema ranked 3rd in profit, after alcohol and cigarettes. But after the Soviet era, only 36 cinemas in Russia were left. During that time, there were a lot of American blockbusters and bad movies around, so people were happy for a Russian film. But then Russian directors began making films on topics that could not be talked about before. You could not go to the cinema with your wife and children anymore: pornography, so-called ‘true’ cinema, but which was not true at all. So people fled the cinema, or watched American blockbusters instead.”

“The cruel truth without love [also] is a lie”, Mikhalkov asserts. “This is a Russian tradition. Say nasty things, but never without love. However, the ‘nasty [only]’ films got a lot of prizes at Eastern film festivals, and I always wondered how it happened.”

Then Mikhalkov lays out a nationalist vision which, frankly, is disquieting: “If we get back Russian, clear, good, traditional movies, people will go back to the cinema again.”

Meanwhile, Razlogov is standing strong against the attacks from the national press, which, you would think, should actually back him up, but which — just as the general Russian audience — does not seem ready to take a step forward. “To me, the most important thing a film festival can do is to fight for freedom”, Razlogov says. “We try to show everything we can.” I hope he can continue to do so.

Edited by Gerald Peary