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No longer international: war has left MIFF with no stars on the jury and with Indian movies in repertoire

Konstantin Zametin

Deprived of its elite “A” category designation, leading selectors and best critics on the jury, international stars and world repertoire, the Moscow Film Festival treated the audience to Indian movies and Nikita Mikhalkov's Nazi lines. Muscovites and visitors from other cities were reluctant to attend the festival, and it opened with a minute of silence in honor of the daughter of the obscurantist ideologue Dugin.

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Throughout its long history, the Moscow International Festival has never found itself in such unpleasant situation as it finds itself today. Neither the suppression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956, nor the unprecedented pressure on the selection committee in 1963 (the official authorities insisted that the grand prize go to the mediocre Soviet film “Meet Baluyev”, but Grigory Chukhrai, the president of the jury, threatened to resign and insisted that the prize go to Fellini's “Eight and a Half”), the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the wars in Chechnya in 1994 and 1999, the armed conflict with Georgia in 2008, the annexation of Crimea in 2014 or the Covid pandemic had such an impact on the festival as the “special military operation” in Ukraine and the ensuing sanctions, which sharply reduced its ability to receive films from abroad, and not only from those countries which condemned Russia's military actions against Ukraine.

Contrary to what MIFF officials say, the festival’s reach was limited not because of “logistical difficulties,” but because of the boycott. And also because the International Federation of Film Producers Associations (FIAPF) had stripped the festival of the highest “A” category awarded to the most important international film forums in Cannes, Venice and Berlin.

A major role in the decline of MIFF's prestige was played by its president, who has been irreplaceable for almost a quarter of a century, Nikita Mikhalkov, People's Artiste of Russia, with his TV show “Besogon TV”. He is known to approve of all the actions of the authorities and to repeat propaganda clichés about a “liberal-Atlantic dictatorship,” or special biological weapons that are targeting the Slavs (“It turned out that biological weapons were tested on volunteer Ukrainians. And then there are the birds, which were infected, their estimated flight trajectory passing through Russia. This is an absolutely fascist attempt to exterminate the Slavic ethnic group as such. This is a global story, if you consider that all this had been in preparation for many centuries...”). He made express Nazi statements, particularly on the eve of the festival opening (“The very phrasing of the Ukrainian language is a formulation of hatred towards Russia, and if any disciplines are taught in Ukrainian, it is a disaster, it is an absolute landmine under the entire history”).

Mikhalkov made express Nazi statements right before the opening of the festival

This year the MIFF’s external problems were supplemented by internal ones when ex-chairman of the selection committee, honorary president of the International Film Press Association (FIPRESCI) Andrei Plakhov quit the committee saying that cooperation with the MIFF was impossible due to Mikhalkov's support of the Russian military action against Ukraine. Along with Plakhov, the famous TV presenter and documentary filmmaker Pyotr Shepotinnik, who had been appointed head of the committee early last December, was removed from his post. Thus, the festival lost its most authoritative film critics, whose international connections ensured the quality of the competition, author’s programs and retrospectives. They were replaced by those who were not ashamed to take the still warm seats of their dismissed colleagues. The same thing happened with the Russian Film Critics Jury, which did not include any famous critics, some of whom, as it turned out at the end of the festival, for the first time in decades had not even attempted to receive accreditation.

All these factors cut the duration of the MIFF to eight days, and the international competition to nine films, thirty percent of which were Russian movies. The number of author’s programs and foreign guests decreased. None of the world movie stars such as Jack Nicholson, Jeanne Moreau, Francis Ford Coppola, Meryl Streep, Harvey Keitel, Fanny Ardant, Isabelle Huppert or Quentin Tarantino, who used to attend the MIFF during the first years of Mikhalkov's presidency, were in attendance.

The organizers, naturally, resorted to “import substitution” by establishing a national contest, a shadow of the one at the Kinotavr festival canceled due to the return to Ukraine of its chief organizer, the major producer Alexander Rodnyansky, who refused to collaborate with Russian filmmakers.

The program was filled with films from “friendly” countries, with special hopes laid on India, whose pictures were very successful during the Soviet period, as if it were possible to fill the empty space left by Hollywood with Bollywood. The official website also attests to the level of preparation of the 44th Moscow Film Festival. The home page has a black and white text that reads: “was for the first time held in 1935, the jury was chaired by sergey eisenstein”, although in fact the chairman was Boris Shumyatsky, the then head of the Soviet film industry, who caused Eisenstein a lot of trouble and was shot in 1938 following accusations trumped up by the Chekists.

MIFF official website screenshot
MIFF official website screenshot

The same style, with no capital letters, is used for film summaries, of which the following one ranks first in terms of illiteracy:

“43-year-old asie is a director in their private theater company. after his father died, umut was sent to live with his uncle in bursa, because his mother married a man with three children. for twenty years, umut had no contact with her, until he was told she became seriously ill and moved to bursa. now he will have to take care of her. at the same time, umut finds out that asie is pregnant. the situation he finds himself in, turns his whole life upside down.”

Somehow unnoticeably, but symbolically, the former MIFF motto “For the humanism of cinema, for peace and friendship between peoples!” has disappeared, being replaced by the flat-sounding “Search and discovery”. Currently, in times of war, that old motto would have looked, to put it mildly, out of place.

In addition to all this, the timing of the festival was extremely badly chosen: the last days of summer were hot in Moscow, the first of September was coming up, parents were preparing their kids for school. The Moscow public had no time for movies. Besides, one of the three major world film festivals, the Venice Film Festival, began on August 31 in Italy. The decline of interest is clearly reflected in the number of attendees - for example, MIFF 2014, according to Mikhalkov, was attended by 75,000 people, while MIFF 2022, according to its general producer Leonid Vereshchagin - only by 30,000, i.e. 2.5 times fewer (and even this figure is doubtful). But this is unlikely to have upset the organizers - for them, apparently, it was more important to associate themselves with the Day of Russian Cinema, i.e. August 19, 1919, when Sovnarkom passed a decree on expropriation of the country’s film industry by the state, that is, simply put, robbed and enslaved domestic filmmakers, depriving them of the opportunity to take an appropriate place in the global film market.

By the way, many Russian participants of the MIFF found themselves in an unenviable position of semi-serfs, who in their hearts condemned the invasion of Ukraine and realized they were being used, but were unable, like certain characters of the famous film, to refuse the invitation to participate in the Mikhalkov event.

It is also symbolic that at the opening of the festival the attendees solemnly remembered Daria Dugina, who had been killed in a terrorist attack, and at the closing honored the memory of Mikhail Gorbachev, as if equating those incommensurable personalities; the Stanislavsky prize “I believe”, due to the absence of notable foreigners, was awarded to an obviously confused and embarrassed Konstantin Khabensky. Mikhalkov gave a speech, which was compared to a sermon in MK’s report. He spoke about “the birth of a new nation” - although it would have been more fitting to talk about the historically doomed attempt to resurrect the old one.

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