Kyiv, Ukraine – A Belgian violinist arrives in Ukraine to play for an art-loving oligarch – and witnesses the first days of Russia’s full-scale invasion.
He sees how Ukrainian servicemen “kill” civilians and “shell” a railway station to blame the deaths on the Russians whose purpose is Ukraine’s “liberation” from a Western-backed “neo-Nazi junta”.
The servicemen sporting swastika tattoos electrocute the violinist, and “rape” and “murder” his female manager. He barely escapes only to see how Western politicians and media “plot” against Russia.
Svidetel (Witness) was the first feature film about the ongoing war, directed by David Dadunashvili, and released in Russia in August in 1,131 movie theatres.
But with a budget of about $2m, it was one of the biggest box office bombs, taking a mere $70,000 in the first four days.
Aggressive advertising and the absence of competition – there are hardly any Hollywood films screened due to Western sanctions – did not help.
The film’s producers did not release further box office information.
On IMDB, a review-aggregator website, Svidetel stars one out of 10 and enjoys nothing but scathing reviews.
“It’s a lie upon a lie upon a lie, and artists don’t even bother pretending they’re serious,” Konstantin, an English teacher from the western city of Tula, told Al Jazeera. “It should be shown in Ukraine as a comedy.”
Since 2014, a dozen films on the annexation of Crimea and pro-Moscow separatists in Ukraine’s Donbas region have been shot in Russia.
Each flopped at the box office – and were so insignificant and obscure, that even the most outspoken warmonger failed to notice them.
Bombs and scandals
“In the past nine years, the state [not individuals, but the state] didn’t manage to make films about the heroes of Donbas,” Zakhar Prilepin, a novelist who joined the separatists and confessed to committing war crimes, wrote last year on his blog.
He also decried the exodus of actors and filmmakers from Russia – along with writers, rock and rap stars.
Last November, the Culture Ministry allocated $395m for movies that would cover “the current confrontation with the ideologies of Nazism and fascism”, the war in Ukraine and Russia’s “spiritual leaders and volunteers”.
One of them will be a television series based on Prilepin’s novel, The Volunteers’ Romance.
Director Oleg Lukichev said the series would contemplate “the Russian identity”.
In 2018, Prilepin starred in a rare critically acclaimed film about the war.
Phone Duty, a short feature about the Donbas rebels, got the Best Narrative Short prize at the Tribeca Film Festival in the United States.
Thousands of Ukrainians signed a petition demanding an apology from the festival’s organisers.
Another commercial flop is Crimea, a 2017 melodrama commissioned by Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu that cost his ministry about $2.5m.
But its creators were not after profits – they made it available on file exchange networks and YouTube.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Maria Zakharova urged Ukrainians to watch it “for enlightenment and contemplation”.
A review on Film.ru, Russia’s main cinephile portal, described it as “crippled and unsophisticated propaganda”.
Meanwhile, Russia cancelled screenings and the distribution of Donbas, a 2018 drama by Ukrainian director Serhiy Loznitsa that was awarded at the Cannes Film Festival in France.
Despite Crimea’s symbolic significance in today’s Russia, other movies about it have failed to win moviegoers over.
The Crimean Bridge – Made with Love, a slapstick comedy written by outspoken propagandist Margarita Simonyan and shot by her husband Tigran Keosayan cost $1.4m but earned $250,000. It got a rating of 2.5 out of 10 on the Kinopoisk.ru review aggregator – something Keosayan blamed on “sick people” and “Ukrainian bots”.
No more masterpieces
In stark contrast, some Soviet-era masterpieces that were funded and censored by Communist officials are still studied in film schools worldwide.
Battleship Potemkin by Sergei Eisenstein was a 1925 breakthrough in film editing.
Earth, a 1930 silent drama by Alexander Dovzhenko about collective farms, was screened in 2015 by UNESCO to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the United Nations’ culture branch.
Andrey Tarkovsky’s and Sergey Paradzhanov’s arthouse meditations won strings of international awards – and still inspire filmmakers and even pop stars like Lady Gaga.
“Unlike Eisenstein or Dovzhenko, these days, nobody truly believes in what they’re doing,” Askold Kurov, who filmed and co-produced Welcome to Chechnya, a 2020 award-winning documentary about the persecution of LGBTQ Chechens, told Al Jazeera.
Soviet filmmakers believed in Communism’s messianic message, revolutionised cinematic expression, and developed a new artistic language. But their experiments were cut short by the Stalinist dogmas of “socialist realism”, he said.
Russia’s current ideology is a hotchpotch of anti-Western nationalism and nostalgia for the Soviet and czarist past.
“These days, everything the government commissions turns into boring crap. Because decent people don’t get involved,” Kurov said. “Because there is embezzlement of huge budgets, they need directors and producers who are easy and safe to deal with.”
Another reason could be the very fabric of filmmaking.
Out of roughly 200 Russian films released annually, only a handful turn a profit.
Many filmmakers prefer to rely on state subsidies – and embezzle sizeable parts, an industry insider says.
“They hope for freebies from the state. And the freebies roll in, but are stolen by those who get them,” an actor, who has played in dozens of Russian films and television series, told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity.
“Far less than a half” of the budget reaches the production team, he said, but everyone in the production chain is involved in the corruption.
“Corruption is not something that corrodes the system but something that holds it together,” he said.
‘Profits are not our priority’
Russia’s film industry underwent a painful transformation in the 1990s, and only by the early 2000s, several blockbusters could compete with Hollywood fare.
That is when Russian President Vladimir Putin came to power, and law enforcement agencies, including his alma mater, the Federal Security Service (FSB), began funding propaganda.
In The Apocalypse Code, a 2007 knockoff of James Bond and Charlie’s Angels films, the world is saved by a female FSB officer in revealing clothes.
The film cost $15m but grossed $7m and was panned by critics.
Its creator, the non-profit Fund to Support Patriotic Films, whose trustees included security and defence officials, did not appear to care.
“Profits are not our priority,” the fund’s head, Olesya Bykova, told this reporter in 2008. Instead, she said, her fund focused on something that could inspire “respect to people who represent our country, to security officers, to our traditions and love to our motherland”.