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The all-out domestic fiasco of the Russian patriotic feature film Svidetel (“The Eyewitness”) frustrated the pro-war community but hardly surprised industry professionals. Attributing the failure to its domestic origins would be a mistake: Cheburashka, a politically neutral Russian cartoon-turned-movie topped the box office even during the war. The Insider decided to delve into the mystery of Svidetel's downfall that extends beyond the movie's horrendous quality.

  • ended up being a flop

  • Plot summary

  • Russian cinema since 2014: “Product may contain traces of art”

Читать на русском языке

An AP Entertainment movie directed by David Dadunashvili and produced by Sofya Mitrofanova, Svidetel was created with support from both Russia’s Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Defense. With production costs ranging from $700,000 to $2 million, the movie made less than $70,000 during the first weekend, also earning an embarrassing IMDB ranking of 1.0. And while it’s still running in Russian theaters, it can hardly make more than in its weekend debut.

Why Svidetel ended up being a flop

On the one hand, the film’s box-office failure is hardly unprecedented, as many Russian movies gross lower than their production budgets. On the other hand, it demonstrates the reluctance of Russia’s domestic audiences to give the time of day to the first ever “patriotic” feature film on the war in Ukraine. Movie industry analyst Sergei Lavrov, who predicted Svidetel's failure a few days before its theater release, cited two reasons for The Insider: firstly, “the production quality is terrible; the movie is dull and visually unappealing; the acting is abysmal, and the script is full of plot holes – a slipshod job one would expect from the NTV channel”, and secondly, “there was no promotion at all – moviegoers had never heard of it, as is often the case with Russian movies in theaters.” As the expert concluded, “It's unclear how such a subpar movie was released across an astounding 1,131 Russian theaters.”

Many Russian movies gross lower than their production budgets, but domestic audiences’ indifference to the first-ever “patriotic” feature film on the war in Ukraine is clear

Even pro-war zealots were unhappy with the movie’s creators, accusing them of “apparent sabotage”. Ultrapatriotic blogger Mikhail Chumakin was so furious that he branded Dadunashvili's movie as a “despicable incarnation of mediocrity and amateurism” and even “a crime against society and the state”.

Interestingly, not a single professional critic has made a stance on Svidetel yet (if we don't count sarcastic congratulations on the ill-fated premiere on social media): Russian movie portals only have user reviews so far, and the independent publication Meduza limited its review to a recap. Following in their steps, we’ll start with a brief recap as well.

A still from Svidetel
A still from Svidetel

Plot summary

Daniel Cohen, a celebrated Belgian violinist of Jewish descent, and his manager Brigitta come to Kyiv (filmed in Tver in central Russia) at the invitation of a Ukrainian oligarch on the eve of the Russian invasion. The plan is to perform at a corporate party and get on a plane home. However, the oligarch makes a run for it on the night of the invasion, fleeing to Israel and leaving his guests behind. Cohen and Brigitta end up in the street, caught in a shooting. Local gangsters, who are out looting shops, capture them, throw them into a basement as “spies,” rape and murder Brigitta.

Cohen somehow makes it out alive but then ends up with a group of Ukrainian soldiers headed by the oligarch's aide. At his order, the uniformed goons give him a tour of an underground prison, where he witnesses torture and killings. He is then brought to a party where the aide makes him play a Ukrainian tune. As a reward, he gets to pick a woman from a large group of captives. He pretends to go with it and thus rescues a woman with a young son.

They get to the railway station, where the local authorities are gathering people under the pretext of evacuation, only to bomb it and blame it on the Russians. The woman and her child get killed, and our lucky man Cohen makes it to the Belgian consulate in Lviv, and then back home. He insists he never was in Russian captivity – making everyone think he has Stockholm syndrome. He then gets an invitation to a talk show where he is supposed to say Russians did torture him – but the courageous violinist is adamant about telling the truth. The movie ends with a caption informing the viewer that all the atrocities in Bucha, Mariupol, and other cities were committed by the Kyiv regime to denigrate Russia and its people in the eyes of the entire world.

As a side note: throughout the movie, the protagonist, played by Karen Badalov, wanders aimlessly with a mournful expression and occasionally makes video calls to his son. Apart from taking up time, these filler scenes serve the only purpose of having the boy “accidentally” utter the scriptwriter’s main idea: “Is Ukraine not a part of Russia?”

A still from Svidetel
A still from Svidetel

Finally, it’s time for the key war propaganda trick of dehumanizing your enemy, which filmmakers employ with varying success. Few made a genius use of these tricks, like Sergei Eisenstein in his Battleship Potemkin, when he had the commander cover the soldiers who refused to eat the spoiled borscht with canvas and fire-squad them. Some get creative, like Aleksei Balabanov in Cargo 200, who edited out the tenants of the house where the maniac policeman drags a coffin with a soldier killed in Afghanistan. Most directors suck at it – including the authors of Svidetel, who made up a bunch of Ukrainians who show all kinds of atrocities to the protagonist, and then let him go home, to Belgium, where he can tell the entire world what’s going on.

Some directors make genius use of war propaganda tricks, others get creative, but the authors of Svidetel lack any talent at all

Russian cinema since 2014: “Product may contain traces of art”

Svidetel is not an isolated incident — from 2014 to 2022, Russia has seen a host of unwatchable movies that repel more viewers than they attract. In this anti-ranking, three of these products stand out as the absolute worst in their respective years of release: Tigran Keosayan's Krymsky Most [Crimean Bridge], with production and promotion costs of $3 million and a box-office gross of just $710,000, Maxim Brius and Mikhail Vasserbaum’s Solntsepyok [Hotsunlight], which never saw a theatrical release due to low box office potential, and Renat Davletyarov’s Donbass. Okraina [Donbas. Borderland], which grossed $100,000 against the production costs of $1.2 million. These and many other flops were created with support from —or rather, in cahoots with —Russia’s Cinema Foundation and Ministry of Culture, which has become an unofficial national censor in violation of the country’s Constitution (you can find the list of its recent victims here).

State support, which was once beneficial for Russian cinema, began doing more harm than good when the government decided they wanted more bang for their buck and took to treating filmmakers as their servants. Meanwhile, Russian movies’ international prospects have also been shrinking due to the country's growing isolation.

State support began doing more harm than good when the government began treating filmmakers as their servants

The very emblem of Russia’s infamous culture ministry in the opening credits fuels suspicions — comparable to those inspired by German movies commissioned by the Reich Ministry of Propaganda.

Meanwhile, both independent and commercial movies perform much better without the government's guidance and all-seeing eyes. Take Dmitry Dyachenko's Cheburashka, for example, with its $70 million earnings (eight times its production budget), or Klim Shipenko's Kholop [The Peasant], which grossed $30 million with a budget of just over $3 million. The immense success of these artistically mediocre creations is explained by the lack of annoying “Ruscist” ideology and a focus on simple messages appealing to universal human values. Both directors did a good enough job, and Cheburashka also had the advantage of featuring a cult classic Soviet cartoon hero as the protagonist alongside human actors.

A still from Cheburashka
A still from Cheburashka

A bird’s-eye view places Cheburashka and Svidetel on the opposing poles of the Russian cinema in the late Putinism era, which started with the Russo-Georgian War of 2008. The former represents commercial movies, while the latter is emblematic of government-issue cinema. In between, there are semi-dependent art house films, with Yakutian movies incrementally winning new audiences, the standalone “Sokurov Island” — a constellation of Golden-Lion-winning filmmaker Alexander Sokurov's students from his workshop in Kabardino-Balkaria — and the creations of recent emigrés making their first steps abroad. In other words, even if Russian cinema isn’t dead yet, it does seem dead in the water.

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