New Russian fests bring challenges, hope

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MOSCOW -- The latest Russian international film festival -- in the Chechnyan capital of Grozny -- has helped throw a spotlight on the multiplying number of far-flung film forums throughout the region, one in which competition is fierce for filmmakers and critics are asked to brave everything from cold temperatures to polar bears.

In fact, the number of film festivals in Russia has more than quadrupled in the past decade, sparking a debate among event organizers and critics, who question the wisdom of the proliferation.

Apart from the upcoming festival in Chechnya, several other events have popped up in remote Russian cities over the past six years.

In 2003, the Amur Autumn festival was launched in the far eastern town of Blagoveshchensk. That same year, the debut edition of Pacific Meridian was held in another of Russia's easternmost cities, Vladivostok, while the Spirit of Fire fest was launched in Khanty-Mansiysk, close to the Arctic Circle. A year later, the Baltic Debuts opened for the first time in Svetlogorsk, a town in the country's western outpost of Kaliningrad.

Andrei Plakhov, a prominent Russian film critic and the author of a recently published book on domestic and "international" film festivals, insists that many of these so-called international festivals have yet to prove themselves worthy of the moniker.

And while international participants at the festivals see a commercial opportunity here, there is still a long way to go before the system functions smoothly, he told The Hollywood Reporter.

"Even if a foreign film wins the main prize at a Russian film festival, that doesn't necessarily mean that domestic distributors will buy it, and this is a big problem," he said. "Any festival that has ambition to stay in business for a long time should solve it."

Another troubling element is the quality of organization.

"No one knows exactly how many film festivals we need in Russia," said Alexander Doluda, executive director of Pacific Meridian. "Still, the organization of some of them leaves much to be desired. But we hope that, with time, the quantity will turn into quality."

At the beginning, it wasn't easy to bring foreign guests to a place they may have never heard of before, Spirit of Fire vp Maria Zvereva said. "For the first festival, we used personal connections to persuade people that Russia's Far North is not just extremely cold temperatures and polar bears. But after the first festival, when people came to Khanty-Maniysk and saw what it's like, we no longer had that problem."

In the six years since the festival's debut, the situation in the domestic film industry also has changed, with more and more indigenous features produced annually, Zvereva said.

"When we started six years ago, we intended to include all the debut features by domestic directors in the program, but we could hardly find eight movies, as few were made at that time," Zvereva said. "Gradually, we had to expand the program to 10, then 15, films but there are more these days, so we had to (become more selective)."

Despite the learning curve, observers argue that these festivals often represent the only way local audiences get to see many domestic and international movies.

"In this country, film festivals often replace theatrical releases of domestic movies," said Sitora Aliyeva, programming director at more-established fest Kinotavr. "The situation can only change when cinema chain owners and distributors begin to actively work with domestic films."
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