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Breaking the waves?: director Vitaly Manksy on Russia’s new film festival laws

Breaking the waves?: director Vitaly Manksy on Russia’s new film festival laws
The 2018 Beat Film Festival in St. Petersburg. Image: beatfilmfestival / Facebook

Award-winning documentary director Vitaly Mansky explains how Russia’s new law on film festivals, which introduces distribution licenses and official accreditations, is just another attempt to force the country’s independent cinema industry to bend the knee

23 August 2018
Interview Adam Ure

As told to Daria Litvinova

Remember Orwell: “war is peace”? What’s going on now is just like that. The new law suggests we have peace because it ostensibly eases regulations for film festivals supported by the authorities (including some of the big international ones). But, in fact, it will destroy the vast majority of independent film festivals.

The 2018 Delai Film festival in Moscow. Image: delaikulturu / Facebook

When you examine the new law in the context of the sort of film festivals that happen in Russia at the moment, it’s easy to see what the consequences will be. For instance, there are plenty of foreign film festivals. Usually, these festivals don’t have competitions judged by a jury, which under the new law means they’re no longer classed as festivals and can’t function as such. Even if they were, bringing in films for just two screenings would hardly be worth the hassle of getting a distribution license. And it would add insult to the injury of paying not
just for the rights to screen the film, but also for subtitling or simultaneous translation (which on average costs £1,550 for a 90-minute film).

Then there are retrospectives and thematic film festivals. These usually show films made more than a year ago. This is the case with a whole raft of festivals, actually, as curators often come across films long after they appear. But under the new law, they won’t be allowed to screen them without a distribution license.

The law included everything needed to consolidate absolute control in the realm of culture

Officials say it is a walk in the park to get a distribution license. It isn’t. Actually, it’s an insurmountable obstacle for small festivals without a big budget or a large number of employees. In order to get the license, you need to submit a copy of the film to the State Archive. There’s a waiting list, of course, so it’ll take you several months. Then you need to commission a technical inspection of the film, provide a written description of every scene and pay a fee of 3,500 rubles (£40). It’s a very complicated procedure. Now imagine you have to repeat it ten times, because you have ten films in your festival. Or 20. Or 100.

Keep in mind as well that festivals often work with films that simply don’t fit such formats. Some of them are so new that they won’t have time to get distribution licenses. And some of them never planned on getting such licenses, having been made by private individuals (not studios). Films like this — often documentaries — will never get licenses because a person can’t apply, only an organisation. So, the majority of small festivals will simply close down, and that will be that.

Vitaly Mansky at ArtDokFest in 2017. Image: artdocfest / Facebook

Finally, there are independent festivals hit by the law — like my own, ArtDocFest. This is an international festival with a competition and jury and it lasts less than ten days. So, under the new law, it will be exempt from applying for distribution licenses. But, for festivals like ours, there is a clause about needing to get accreditation from the Ministry of Culture. They are yet to explain how this will work, but I’m sure a legitimate reason will be found not to accredit us. After all, the authorities are striving to stifle all independent initiatives. They want to make sure cinema in Russia, be it state-funded or private, or even made abroad, depends entirely on the government.

At a first glance, the law appears as if it was written by someone not very competent, or familiar, with the industry’s issues. But a closer look reveals the opposite. It was crafted by experienced Ministry of Culture lawyers who carefully included everything they need to consolidate absolute control in the realm of culture.

When the government was integrating the media into its power vertical, it started with big institutions, like television. Then print media, then online outlets. These days we’re seeing the authorities crack down on social networks and jail people for likes and shares. A similar process in culture has been driven by the same logic: first they go after big formats aimed at big audiences, then smaller formats aimed at smaller audiences. Now it’s the turn of festivals: and it doesn’t get smaller than that. A simple bit of maths illustrates the point. A film at a festival would be screened five times at the most. The biggest cinema in Russia — Oktyabr in Moscow — has 1,500 seats. There has never been a single festival film in Russia screened in Oktyabr five times with all the seats filled. But even if there had been, it would have been seen by only 7,500 people, a tiny fraction of the 144 million population.

In reality, a successful film at a festival would be seen by an average of 250 people. Why would they want to regulate something so insignificant?

In reality, a successful film at a festival would be seen by 1,500 people at the most and, on average, it would be nearer 250 people. Why would the government want to regulate something so insignificant? The answer is because it doesn’t matter for them whether it is one person, or 30 people, or 100 people. They need to show that it’s not in people’s interest to indulge in dissent. This is they came down so hard on the Bolotnaya protesters back in 2012. And this is why the police carried on raiding Teatr.Doc, an independent theatre of just 30 seats. And this is why they are now coming for festivals.

ArtDocFest will continue to exist no matter what: but the question is where. This year we decided to move the competition program to Riga. Films that we can’t physically screen in Russia, we’ll screen online. These will be special online sessions imitating festival screenings: they will start at a certain time, end at a certain time and afterwards there will be a discussion between the viewers and the creators of the film. These sessions will be in the festival’s schedule, just like regular screenings. This is a nice solution, but it’s not perfect because it is difficult to organise. It’s not like if you want to screen something online you just do it. You need to get a permit from the copyright holder for each film. For us and our platform — Artdoc.Media — the legality of the screenings is paramount.

A 2018 summer cinema at contemporary art museum Garage. Image: garagemca / Facebook

It also doesn’t guarantee that authorities will leave you alone. Russia’s state media and Internet watchdog Roskomnadzor can block any webpage. Of course, none of the ArtDocFest’s films violate Russian law, so, if Roskomnadzor acts within the law, there is no reason to block us. But, hey, if Russia lived by the law, we would be living in a different country.

Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky is very effective at following the party line and destroying anything that deviates from his self-appointed standard. He embarked on a crusade against independent cinema pretty much as soon as he was appointed in 2012, and you have to admit he’s been very successful. The earth has been scorched for quite some time. Now they’re merely trying to steamroll it into asphalt.

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