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‘They started it’ Who decides what Russian movies to ban in Ukraine (and why)

Meduza
Photo: Central Partnership / TASS / Scanpix

In the past few months, Ukraine has banned more than 100 Russian films and TV series. The blacklist now includes Gleb Orlov’s Poddubny, a biopic based on the famous wrestler from Ukraine, Alexey Balabanov’s Voina (“War”) and Brat 2 (“Brother 2”), Vladimir Bortko’s Taras Bulba, based on the famous story by Gogol, and the television shows Mentovskie Voiny (“Cop Wars”), Kadetstvo (“Cadethood”), Soldaty (“Soldiers”), Belaya Gvardiya (“White Guard”), and Banditsky Peterburg (“Bandit Petersburg”).

Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Emmy-award-winning film Leviathan will never reach screens, following a February 2015 law adopted by the parliament, recently signed by President Poroshenko, that bans the showing of all TV shows and films made in Russia after January 1, 2014. The ban extends to any film or video “propagating the Russian police or armed forces” released after 1991, and any film or video ever that is considered to be “anti-Ukrainian,” wherever it was made.

In a special report for Meduza, Yekaterina Sergatskova spoke to Filipp Ilyenko, the head of Ukraine’s State Cinema Committee (Goskino), a staunch supporter of the new bans, and film expert Aksinya Kurina, who views Ukraine’s expert commission on films as “an institution of political censorship.”

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Filipp Ilyenko
Filipp Ilyenko
Photo: Yegor Anishchenko / Ukrainian Photo / PhotoXPress

Filipp Ilyenko

Head of Ukraine’s State Agency on Film, head of Goskino’s expert commission on the distribution and screening of films.

We weren’t the first ones to start banning movies. The first time Russians did this was in 2002, when they banned the [Ukrainian] movie Molitva o Getmane Mazepe (“A Prayer for Hetman Mazepa”) [about the Cossack Hetman who deserted Russian Tsar Peter I to fight with Sweden in 1708]. They never published any formal documents about it, but Russia’s Culture Minister Mikhail Shvydkoi did publicly condemn it, and everyone in the film industry always acts on such remarks in Putin’s Russia.

When we ban something, we go through legal channels.

By the way, even the Russian press has acknowledged repeatedly that a large number of Russian films serve ideological and propagandistic purposes. After the first war in Chechnya, where the Kremlin lost on the information front, they learned their lesson. After that, they started treating the media and filmmakers like instruments for shaping public opinion. With each passing year, they’ve become more aggressive about it.

Consider a couple of odious examples: August Eighth (2012) completely distorts the history of Russian aggression against Georgia in 2008, depicting Georgians in a very biased and unfair way; and Match (2012) is a similar movie, completely distorting important moments in Ukrainian history. It shows a Ukrainian nationalist—the city’s mayor—rushing to greet the Germans in Kiev, though this never happened. And the film doesn’t bother to remind Russians of the well-known fact that Ukrainian nationalists were executed at Babi Yar. Those are just a couple of examples of how movies, disguised as art, can distort history, zombify people, and incite international conflict.

The information war with Ukraine started when Putin came to power, and it peaked in 2008-2010, when a whole range of films appeared promoting the very same military forces now fighting in eastern Ukraine against our citizens. These movies cultivated the idea of honest, fair, and strong Russian servicemen, and the average person sitting in front of his TV screen eats it up. But then these people come out with signs saying, “Putin, send troops!” and when these troops appear, they spread aggression and chaos.

You once said that Ukraine’s State Agency on Film won’t restrict showing films that “pose no threat.” What movies did you have in mind?

It’s easier to say what films do pose a threat. I can lay out four basic criteria that I’ve suggested adding to the law: first, any films promoting the government agencies of aggressor-states in all forms (historical and contemporary); second, films that denigrate our national character; third, films that justify or fail to recognize the annexation and occupation of parts of Ukrainian territory; and fourth, films that distort Ukraine’s history or imply that there is no such thing as a Ukrainian state or nation.

A scene from the film Brother 2.

But these initiatives are only appearing now because we are at war. Before the war, we were incredibly, even excessively, tolerant of these films. I think this was a mistake, because we were a colony when it came to information and culture; we were living according to Russia’s cultural interests and values—not our own. This sowed problems that we’re reaping today in Crimea and in the East. Today, there’s no moral way we could show these movies about the Russian special forces, when they could be seen by the wife or the mother of a Ukrainian soldier who just died at the hands of the very same special forces.

But why ban 'Taras Bulba'?

When Taras Bulba came out, even people in Russian cinema briefly discussed how the movie is openly propagandistic. This film professionally manipulates historical concepts and terms, such that it virtually negates the foundations of Ukrainian nationhood, declaring that the Zaporozhian Cossacks belonged to the “Russian world.” The first version of Gogol’s story said nothing about the Russian tsar. He made changes for the second publisher, and that’s when these other details appeared in the story. But we haven’t banned Gogol—we banned this particular film adaptation.

The movie has scenes that were never in the book, and in other places they managed to accent certain things. For instance, during the time of the character Taras Bulba (who never really existed, by the way), the territory known today as Russia was called Muscovy, and the people who today call themselves Russians were called Muscovites. Maybe it’s historically accurate to call the Ukrainians in this film “Russians,” but it’s done as if to say that the Great Russian nation and a united Russian people already existed. Stealing is wrong—especially stealing other people’s history.

And what about the film 'Leviathan'? Should it be banned?

I don’t see any reason to ban it. [...] As it happens, not a single [Ukrainian] distributor or copyright-holder has come forward about running Leviathan, and I don’t know if anybody is planning to show the movie in Ukraine.

A scene from the film August Eighth.

I’ll also point out that I don’t decide which films to ban—an expert commission analyzes these films and I only make decisions based on their recommendations. For example, when it comes to Brother 2, the vast majority of experts were unequivocally in favor of banning the film. When it came to banning [Russian action-movie star Mikhail] Porechenkov’s films, the commission held a special meeting, after we received various requests, including appeals from Ukraine’s National Security Service and other law enforcement agencies.

So on the outside it looks like I’m the man behind all these bans. For starters, I don’t aspire to this reputation. Second, prohibiting certain films isn’t Goskino’s main function—it’s just a small part of what we do. For me, the most important thing we do isn’t what we ban, but the cinema we create ourselves in Ukraine, and we’re always looking for different ways to do this. For example, we’ve developed a strategy for getting the output and quality of Ukraine’s film industry to new levels, taking a whole series of measures.

Aksinya Kurina

A journalist and film expert. From 2007 to 2010, she worked in Ukraine’s Culture Ministry (and later at Goskino) as a member of the expert commission on the display and distribution of films.

Five years ago, I joined the expert commission in order to work against censorship in cinema. I was concerned that some films weren’t getting a certificate for distribution, which meant they were effectively banned in Ukrainian movie theaters and on Ukrainian television.

The commission worked like this: experts would come to screenings at the Culture Ministry, or they’d get the films on DVD to watch at home, and then they’d complete a form, indicating the appropriate age-rating for the movie. It was on the basis of these reports that officials cast their votes [on whether or not to ban a film]. There was never any discussion, except for my debates afterwards with those who voted in favor of banning a film.

In addition to the commission’s film experts and art critics were psychologists and figures who’d positioned themselves as spokespeople for the public, who didn’t know anything about cinema or child psychology. I have no idea why these people were invited. I eventually left the commission after one of its various absurd decisions: banning Sacha Baron Cohen’s film Bruno.

A scene from the film Bruno.

The very existence of such a commission is absurd in a country that says its future lies with the European Union. De jure and de facto, this institution amounts to state censorship, which violates Article 15 of the Ukrainian Constitution. I think it’s appropriate to have an expert committee of child psychologists to assign age ratings, but we shouldn’t be telling adults what they can and can’t see.

Since Filipp Ilyenko took over, Goskino has become an assembly line for bans on films and TV shows. They even banned Taras Bulba, which stars the Ukrainian movie star Bogan Stupka. You have to hand it to some film critics on the commission, however, who opposed the ban.

Unfortunately, the situation with the armed conflict [in eastern Ukraine] and the information aggression [from Russia] has become an excuse for officials and politicians to turn to populism. In February, Rada deputies voted to ban on Ukrainian television all films and shows made in Russia after January 1, 2014.

So even if there’s something [made in Russia] that criticizes the Russian authorities, you can’t air it on Ukrainian TV. It’s pure schizophrenia: in Ukraine there are Russian banks operating, stores selling Russian goods, and so on, but [Russian] films are prohibited. This commission’s bans do nothing to solve Ukraine’s problems in the information space—they only damage the country’s reputation.

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Yekaterina Sergatskova

Kiev