Cursing in Movies: The Moscow Ban

in 36th Moscow International Film Festival

by Gideon Kouts

Cursing in movies is today a common phenomenon. The use of “profanity” in films has maybe once been controversial, but has increased significantly in recent years. The use of the word fuck in film has always drawn particular criticism; in 2005, the documentary “Fuck” dealt entirely with this phenomenon. The word fuck is thought to be the taboo term used most in American film.

The Wolf in Wall Street (2013) holds until now the record of cursing in fiction movies with not less than 569 times the word “fuck”.

Already in the Ancient world, Greek playwrights were not very tender in their comedies heroes’ dirty language and behaviour. In the Western world, cursing was considered many years ago an artistic expression of social and political rebellion and avant-garde. When Alfred Jarry opened in 1896 his “UbuRoi” with the French word “Merdre” (literally: shitting…), he opened a new era in the modern theatre and literature — the debut of the “Absurd”. Today, cursing is mostly a pretention to “authenticity” which starts to overtake the most authentic of the common profaners.

But a new Russian legislation, inspired by President Putin’s wish to handle his political and cultural opposition, brings back the “lettres de noblesse” to the old bad cursing…

From 1 July 2014, the words khuy (cock), pizda (cunt), yebat (to fuck) and blyad (whore) — a quartet known as mat — will be banned from use in the arts in Russia. Violators of the law face fines of between $70 and $1,400 depending on whether they’re an individual, an official or an organization.

The ban on swearing includes books, film, music, theatre and popular blogs. Films containing explicit content won’t receive general distribution, and copies of DVDs, books or CDs will come sealed and labeled as obscene. Yet the law does not describe which curse words are out and which are in — what counts as profane will be determined by an expert panel.

Before announcing its 2014 Moscow International Film Festival Prize to Valeriya Gay Germanika’s Yes and Yes (Da I Da), I declared, as FIPRESCI Jury President at the press conference that members of the Jury were “honoured to be invited to this year’s Moscow festival” and that they were “opposed to any cultural boycott on Russia”, but, I added that we championed also the freedom of artistic expression. “We don’t want to intervene in foreign states’ lawmaking, but we strongly hope that the Russian and international public can see the film we have selected and any other film, in the original version which represents its creator”. This declaration was warmly and loudly applauded by the public, including film critics, filmmakers and officials.

As the new “anti-obscenity” legislation has come into effect in Russia, Germanika’s film may be denied a theatrical release because of its extensive use of swear words.

The real intentions of this legislation were made clear with the ban on Andrey Zvyagintsev’s political movie Leviathan, which won the award for Best Screenplay in Cannes 2014, whose unpleasant and corrupted hero looks very much like Putin himself.

Producer Fedor Bondarchuk who thanked FIPRESCI Jury for its choice, had suggested bleeps might have to be inserted over the ‘four-letter words’ (in fact, in Russian often longer and much more varied…) or dialogues would simply be changed.

“All great Russian poets and writers used cursing and swear-words”, says Bondarchuk. “Writer Fyodor Dostoyevski once said that everything a Russian might think or speak could be expressed with one word: khuy (prick)… The Russian vocabulary in this field, is perhaps the richest in the world… Our national poet Pushkin was very creative in the use of swear-words. We have so many ways to curse, while in English you can only hear ‘fuck’ and ‘fuck’ again and again…” Bondarchuk, 47, is one of the most powerful Russian producers, a well-known actor and director and son of the Russian cinema icon, actor and director Sergey Bondarchuk. His record includes some of the largest recent productions like the epos Stalingrad. Like many leading Russian artists he approves, for instance, the annexation of Crimea. But while representing the mainstream of the Russian film industry he does not refrain from investing in “experimental” movies. His official status makes him less vulnerable to eventual persecutions from the authorities, but also limits the boundaries of his artistic freedom.

Valeriya Gay Germanika, 30, the “enfant terrible” of Russian young cinema, winner of the Camera d’Or special mention in Cannes for her They Will All Die Except Me (2008), she is not an unknown newcomer to Russian filmgoers and her TV series audience.

“Changing my dialogues or making any cuts will definitively harm my movie; it will bother me very much. I don’t know what I’ll do… Swearing is a part of my life and my heroes’ lives”, she says, looking a bit lost and worried in the middle of a gay roof party in an old warehouse, reconverted into a gallery near Bondarchuk’s studio. While saying this, she suddenly looks somehow like one of her heroes, all not very outspoken, like herself, but incessantly troubled. Not the old-new Russian hero-type Putin wants to promote.

Yes and Yes depicts a continuous dream or nightmare of an encounter between a young schoolteacher and a rebellious painter in a “bohemian” desperate milieu. The FIPRESCI Jury awarded its Prize to Yes and Yes for its “original and sometimes provocative presentation and exploration of contemporary generations’ way of life, creation and language”. Jury member Rita Di Santo added in the press conference that the film “broadened the boundaries of cinema language” and cited Jean Luc Godard’s words: “Ideas separate us, but dreams unite us”. We have insisted, of course, on the word “language” to make our message and our dream clear enough. We are sure it was understood and largely approved.

Edited by Rita di Santo