Throttling a 'Leviathan'? Russia tightens controls on its film industry

Russia's Ministry of Culture is turning up pressure on the country's fledgling movie industry to be more patriotic and use less obscene language – demands that Oscar-nominated Russian film 'Leviathan' runs afoul of.

Anna Matveeva/Sony Pictures Classics/AP
In this image released by Sony Pictures Classics, Aleksey Serebryakov appears in a scene from the film, 'Leviathan.' The Oscar-nominated film will be censored when it opens on Feb. 5, just one example of a broader Kremlin effort to control the Russian film industry.

When Russian cinema audiences finally get to see the Golden Globe-winning, Oscar-nominated film "Leviathan" in about two weeks, they will hear a soundtrack that has bleeped out all the rich Russian obscenities the film is apparently larded with.

Of course, adult Russians, who intimately know the depths of their own language, will be able to mentally insert each and every redacted expletive.

But many will likely feel the stirrings of an old irritation. It is the first time since the end of the Soviet experiment, with its vast cultural pretensions, that any Russian government has enforced rules that seem to treat grownup Russians as if they were impressionable children.

And government regulation of language purity, which came into effect on Jan. 1, may be just the thin edge of the wedge. On Thursday, the Ministry of Culture announced new rules that will enable it to alter the Russian release date of any film – in practice making it possible to delay the distribution of any new Hollywood blockbuster if it might eclipse the debut of a Russian-made movie the ministry considers important.

"This manipulating of the market will badly affect independent distributors, and really just open the door to corruption and bribery," says Sam Klebanov, an independent film distributor and producer. "They have this war against Hollywood, but it isn't going to hurt Hollywood. It will impose more costs on the struggling Russian film industry, and reduce the choices for Russian consumers."

Russian culture wars?

In recent weeks a ferocious debate has rocked Russia's Ministry of Culture, which provides critical funding for most independent Russian films, over how to use that leverage to shape the final product. Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky has publicly argued for "political and ideological" priorities in filmmaking, adding that "all flowers should grow, but we will only water the ones we like."

This week, after sharp discussion, the ministry decided to shelve a new regulation that would deny a distribution license to any film that "contains content defiling the national culture [or poses] a threat to national unity."

But insiders say that small victory means little amid a surging conservative campaign that aims to turn Russia's fledgling film industry into yet another propaganda arm of the state. Though the Kremlin has declared the flowering of Russian cinematography an important goal, the cat fight over content threatens to suffocate the industry just as it's beginning to gain some international recognition.

"We produce a lot of films in Russia, but few of them recoup their costs. You need state support, and until recently this came with no major strings attached," says Mr. Klebanov. "Now cinema has become the subject of political and ideological struggle, and this leads nowhere good."

Many movies funded by the ministry do conform to conservative guidelines by depicting an idealized view of Russia's past, such as 2012's "Vasilisa Kozhina," a lavish tale of love and tragedy set amid Napoleon's invasion of Russia. It cost $7 million to make, but flopped at the box office, bringing in just $300,000. A few, such as the 2013 blockbuster "Stalingrad", manage to get by entirely on private funding, yet still attract the ire of conservative critics.

Taming Leviathan

Ironically, "Leviathan," a gritty tale of corruption and social injustice set in Russia's far north, only saw the light of day thanks to funding from the Culture Ministry. Despite its international success, it has triggered conservative outrage at home, which could end in the demise of support for such films in future.

Mr. Medinsky last week told pro-government Moscow daily Izvestia that he regrets the state financing for "Leviathan."

"Films that are filled with a spirit of hopelessness and the meaninglessness of existence should not be funded by taxpayers in my opinion," he said. He specifically objected to the negative portrayal in the film of Russian officials as self-serving and corrupt bureaucrats. "I genuinely recognize and admire the talent of many opposition cultural figures. But we are not going to finance their works which criticize the voters’ choice strongly and unethically."

Russian conservatives say it's wholly reasonable that the state should only allocate resources to films that promote national values and a positive image of Russia. In a world where almost everyone is disrespecting Russia, why should the government pay for more of the same?

Some argue further that there should be laws to block "anti-Russian" content altogether. "The role of the state is to protect citizens from any works of dubious art," says Vitaly Milonov, a St. Petersburg legislator and main author of a law that has successfully banned LGBT expression in public places. "Freedom of artistic expression is not as important as the moral health of society," he argues.

But Daniil Dondurei, a leading movie critic and editor of the key industry journal, Cinema Art, says this approach threatens to suffocate independent filmmaking in Russia.

"It may not have been the right time to impose that 'national unity' rule, but the idea's not dead," he says. "There are so many ways to influence a cinematographer. Direct financing is one way, but a producer also has to take care of his political status if he wants access to state resources and sites. Little by little, the situation is changing. What we see is a big system of controls and counter-balances being put into place."

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