8 Features of “Correct” Russian Cinema

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Ukrainian actor Vitalii Salii received an award from the National Film Critics Award “Kinokolo-2021” in the “Best Actor” category. The board that made the decision seemed rather unfazed by the fact that earlier this year, he had played a military servant in the Russian TV series Deep Bay. In the show, Salii played a Russian Navy officer.

In his defence, the actor says that “there is no storyline in the show that would be anti-Ukrainian, political, or glorifying the aggressor army.” However, does Russian cinema really exist without propaganda and distorted reality?

Ukrainian users of social networks criticized the actor for starring in a Russian TV series during Russia’s armed aggression against Ukraine, which has been going on for eight years.

Salii responded to all critics, although not denying his participation in the Russian series:

“Everyone who knows me at least a little knows that I always publicly condemn the annexation of the Ukrainian Crimea and the war in Donbas, which is why I do not act in films in which the plot, script, final product, or the crew in any way justify the war in eastern Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea, or promote contempt for Ukrainians (or the Ukrainian language). This is a condition of my cooperation with any project,” he wrote on his Facebook page.

The actor added that there is no anti-Ukrainian storyline in the show, and the main thing is the message. However, he did not specify what message it was

We remind you that, according to the law, it is prohibited to distribute and show films in Ukraine which contain promotion or propaganda of aggressor agencies or their specific actions which create a positive image of the aggressor country. Although the law does not explicitly prohibit Ukrainian actors from participating in the making of such films, such participation contributes to the creation and distribution of unwanted content.

Returning to the message which Salii uses to justify his participation in the filming, we will tell you how the series ends. According to the plot, the main villain is a Russian rear admiral, responsible for the theft of new equipment from a submarine and the death of the crew as a result of an improvised detonation of a mine to cover up the theft. However, he is not buried as a criminal, but as a real hero—with military honours and celebration.

The viewer is left to wonder why this happened. The fact remains—the horrible crime of a high-ranking military official is not only hidden; the perpetrator is declared a hero. It would seem that this is an important plot twist, a question that must be answered. But somehow, it is left unresolved.

Even if Russian cinema does not openly promote an anti-Ukrainian message, it can impose a distorted world-view. This show is typical Putin-era cinematic art. It depicts a strong commander who is forgiven even for mass murder and portrays the fall of the USSR as the source of all misery.

Bandits in a seaside town are something like the rudiment of “ancient evil” from the 1990s, which arose on Soviet ruins. There seems to be no modern evil in Putin’s Russia, unless it is minuscule.

The only case of death of the entire crew of a submarine in the history of modern Russia is the accident of the Kursk submarine in August 2000. And one of the reasons for the tragedy was Putin’s actions as president, such as delaying the acceptance of foreign aid. It is the same tragedy that is known for his cynical response to American journalist Larry King: “It sank.”

In the show, the crew of the submarine died in the late 90s, before Putin was elected president. And the “Yeltsin” bandits are to blame for this death. This way, history is rewritten via fiction.

Chief director of Russian cinema

Back in 2008, Putin became the “chief director of Russian cinema.” At that time, Russia set up a government council for the development of domestic cinema, which he headed as prime minister. Putin said that “the potential of cinema as the most important tool of upbringing, education, and the formation of values in society is still not fully used.” Critics described it as a return to the Leninist principle “of all the arts, cinema is the most important to us”—with all the same consequences: ideological control coming back to the world of cinema.

Since then, more and more films have been made in Russia every year, pouring billions into the film industry, but the end product has increasingly become akin to propaganda rather than art.

According to journalist Vladimir Tsybulsky, the era of Putin cinema started from the film The 9th Company filmed in 2005. “Turns out that you can simply with the Afghan war with one film. It was clear that this was just the beginning. Only a few years have passed. Just look at the daily listings of any TV channel. Any film poster. It won’t really be all that funny… Putin’s cinema brought the oh-so-necessary peace and grandeur into the soul of the average Russian.”

Journalist Andrei Arkhangelsky calls Putin’s cinema a “new socialist realism” and compares it to the Stalinist cinema.

“You cannot say that the Stalinist cinema was varied. It could differ in style, in the degree of talent of the author; but you cannot imagine that it could be different in its content, set of ideas. You cannot say that the Stalinist cinema had its own ideas. It was all about one thing; regardless of the genre, it was a total eulogy to the Soviet government,” Arkhangelsky writes.

Even “the wildest Russian cinema,” he said, “adheres to unspoken codes of loyalty.” The producer wants to show to the government that he or she can be trusted. As an example, he cites the first 2013 Russian disaster film, Metro. In the story, a group of people is trying to save themselves after an accident, they have almost reached the surface, but then suddenly all effort is lost and people fall back into the pool. The characters cannot save themselves without the government.

8 Features of “Correct” Russian Cinema

Arkhangelsky gives eight examples of “loyalty codes”: what is mandatory and what is impossible in Russian cinema:

  1. The main code is the suggestion that the authorities in Russia are an absolute, unchanging, uncontrollable entity. The authorities can cause horror, fear, even disgust, but they can never be laughed at. This is the worst sin. For example, in the 2018 Russian comedy President’s Holiday, which was promoted as “bold,” anyone is ridiculed, except for the Russian president. On the contrary, the film shows that if you give power to someone else, there will be chaos.
  2. The main evil in the films is now the generalized “West,” which has “always” wanted to ruin Russia. The only time in history when Russia “showed some weakness” was the ‘90s, and blaming this time for everything is something akin to a ritual in Russian cinema. All the worst things happened then or stemmed from that time.
  3. The very idea of private property is also taboo in Russian movies and TV series. As a result, in 20 years, the film has managed to keep it secret from most viewers that capitalism has come to Russia.
  4. Whatever the era in the story, representatives of law enforcement agencies or special services play a key role in the film.
  5. It is impossible to imagine a Russian film about how society is able to do something on its own today. The new films also insist on the idea of the fundamental importance of society: “you cannot do anything on your own, you will only ruin things.”
  6. Even if a Russian TV series or film is based on a real event or a real character, it will absolutely refuse to tell the truth. They claim that the truth seems boring from the standpoint of art, but in reality, it is just ideologically dangerous.
  7. Patriotic films today also uncontrollably take the form of aesthetic fascination with violence and death as such. The only thought that inspires patriots today is that the best thing you can do for the state is to give up your life for its sake.
  8. Love is meant to humanize the worst periods of history, as well as compensate for any directorial and screenwriting problems. In fact, love on the Russian screen is something like cover-up.

The characters of Russian films can fight against recognizable enemies of Putin. In the action film Major Thunder: Plague Doctor, released this spring, a police major is hunting for the main anti-hero—a corruption whistleblower who hides on social media and summons street protests. There is an obvious association with Navalny, a Russian opposition politician who was first poisoned and then sentenced to prison.

The characters can also embody the authoritarian leader/father: they are the only ones who know how to make things better for people who depend on them, and they use cruel methods to impose their vision (yet, they are only hard on others, not themselves). The cruelty of those in power in these films is always meant to show care, and the tyranny is a genius plan calculated in advance. They are also inevitable. Does the child have cerebral palsy? Perhaps, it is a good idea to leave it in the woods: if they don’t die, they may walk on their own, like in the film Temporary Difficulties.

So, what can unite different generations in Russia? The clash of generations and cultures, one of favourite cinematic subjects worldwide, is not a problem at all in Russian cinema: whoever you are, you can be tossed on the floor by special police forces just the same.

In Zack Snyder’s 300, the battle of the Greeks with the Persians at Thermopylae was a “clash of civilizations”: a struggle of “eastern centralism and collective serfdom” against the “idea of a free citizen of an autonomous polis.”

Russia, on the other hand, offers the idea of authorities which may be cruel but are inevitably wise. And this idea can manifest itself in various forms even in films that seem to have nothing to do with politics.

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