Russia's Big Film Event Goes Annual

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As the country's market continues to thrive, its cultural capital is seizing the moment with the launch of a world-class film event.

Originally conceived as a one-off salute to the 65th anniversary of the end of World War II, the inaugural edition of the St. Petersburg International Film Forum, held in May of last year, proved so successful that organizers and city officials decided the time was right to launch an annual festival.

Indeed, with the Russian film sector one of world's fastest-growing -- box office grew 43 percent last year alone and is expected to increase by 68 percent by 2015 -- the St. Petersburg forum is a key part of a larger plan to seize momentum and transform the city into a thriving cinema hub.

Adding a new event to an already-crowded calendar is a risky move, but if Film Forum organizers have an edge on the competition, it can be found in the city itself. Long considered Russia's cultural capital, this "Venice of the North," as it's often called, boasts enough history and locales to rival Paris, Rome and, yes, Venice. The former home of Dostoevsky, Tchaikovsky and Pushkin offers more than 200 museums -- more than any other major city in the world -- including the sprawling Hermitage, which gives the Louvre a run for its money in both size and over-the-top grandeur.

"The idea of a major film festival in St. Petersburg has been around for a while," says director Dmitry Meskhiyev, a St. Petersburg native who attended the fest last year. "I was sure that there would be one sooner or later."

According to Alla Manilova, the city's vice governor and head of the event's organizing committee, the main goals of the St. Petersburg Film Forum are to create a center of cultural and film activity, to attract representatives from the international film business and to facilitate "international cooperation."

"St. Petersburg is a historic film center in Russia," she says. "The country's first film theater was opened in the city, as well as the first film studio, Lenfilm [which opened in 1918 and is still in operation]."

To promote all the city has to offer, organizers of the inaugural event reached out to Hollywood and the West, resulting in several execs and stars making the trip last year. That group included Gary Marenzi, president of worldwide TV at MGM; Antonio Banderas and wife Melanie Griffith; producer Andrew G. Vajna; and Hans-Bodo Mueller, head of 20th Century Fox CIS.

In addition to the Film Forum, a major part of St. Petersburg's expansion plan is Russian World Studios, the first dedicated production facility built in Russia in 60 years. The studio is hosting local film and TV shoots, and RWS officials hope an annual film event will help raise St. Petersburg's international profile as a viable shooting destination and possible production partner.

"The Film Forum is extremely important for the city," says Yuri Sapronov, general director of RWS. "The more events like that the city has, the better."

Andrei Plakhov, the forum's programming director, says the idea to make it a regular event was encouraged by last year's attendees, many of whom came from other international festivals. Plakhov and his team listened to what these fest veterans had to say and approached Manilova and other city officials for their input. "The city government supported the idea," Plakhov says. "This year's Film Forum is a regular festival, which is to be held annually without a particular theme. In that way, its format is not going to change. But it is to feature thematic programs and discussions as well."

This isn't the first time St. Petersburg has attempted to launch its own festival. During the mid-2000s, Mark Rudinstein, who created the country's main national film fest, the Sochi-based Kinotavr, began to organize an international film event in the city, but those plans were shelved because of pressure from Russia's main world cinema gathering, the Moscow International Film Festival, which reportedly didn't want a competitor.

Insiders say the reason the Film Forum is succeeding where past events failed stems from the fact that it is being driven by city officials, rather than a private entity. This makes it more difficult for Moscow to apply pressure, and though comparisons between festivals in the two cities -- which have been competing in the cultural domain for centuries -- will be unavoidable, observers say it's crucial that St. Petersburg find its own identity.

Says Plakhov: "We hope that the Film Forum will find its own place among international film festivals organized in Russia without directly competing with anyone but insisting on all films screened to be [Russian] premieres. We are not copying anyone and screening exclusively films that have not yet been screened in Russia."

So far the Film Forum is being defined by an ambitious mix of international titles, with an expected emphasis on Russian fare. The forum's second edition will have two competition programs: Best of the Best, featuring movies honored at other international festivals, and New Territories, focusing on world and Russian premieres.

Among the highlights of Best of the Best are Asghar Farhadi's Nader and Simin, a Separation, Hong Sangsoo's Oki's Movie and Denis Cote's Curling. The competition films will be judged by a jury presided over by screenwriter Rustam Ibragimbekov and consisting of Marina Zhigalova-Ozkan, general director of Walt Disney CIS; artist Vadim Zakharov; figure-skating coach Tatyana Tarasova; TV host Svetlana Sorokina; and Valeri Kogan, president of the Toronto Russian Film Festival.

Other fest highlights include Metropolis, a training program for young filmmakers overseen by renowned director Alexander Sokurov, and roundtable discussions focusing on ways for St. Petersburg to collaborate more closely with the international film community, including possible co-productions.

Still, while the Film Forum is generating optimism in St. Petersburg, insiders acknowledge there is still plenty of work to be done.

"St. Petersburg can be turned into a major international film center if the government pays attention to the issue," says Sapronov. "We need a tax-incentive system. Competition for attracting foreign film crews to shoot in the country is tough, and we are lagging behind many countries. You need a strong lobby to make all necessary changes on a legislative level."

There have been whispers that a regional film commission based in St. Petersburg is in the works, but at the moment details are scarce. Local officials appear to be tackling one challenge at a time, and for now supporting the Film Forum is priority No. 1.

And while it remains to be seen whether St. Petersburg's burgeoning film sector can become a "gateway to the West," as Peter the Great once imagined the city, fest organizers and city officials are pleased with the progress they've made in such a short time.

Says Meskhiyev, "St. Petersburg has a very good chance to become a European-level film center."              

St. Petersburg Film Forum
July 10-15
MikhailovskyTheatre

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WHERE TO EAT AND STAY IN ST. PETERSBURG

Palkin
This is one of the few restaurants in the city that has preserved its pre-Bolshevik name and location. Palkin opened in 1874 and immediately became popular with such local luminaries as Anton Chekhov, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Pyotr Tchaikovsky. With large windows that offer a view of the always fascinating foot traffic on Nevsky Prospekt, Palkin serves primarily traditional Russian cuisine, with specialties like "copper ukha" (Russian fish soup), sterlet in white wine and, of course, beluga caviar.

Astoria Hotel
Built in 1912, this five-star hotel is located next to St. Isaac's Cathedral and across from the historic Imperial German Embassy. Reportedly, Adolf Hitler was so fond of the hotel's Art Nouveau architecture that he planned to hold a victory banquet in the its Winter Garden after what he thought would be a swift surrender by Leningrad in 1941. Alas, the people of the city had other ideas, and the invitations Hitler printed were never delivered. The hotel's restaurant, Davidov, features traditional Russian cuisine like blini (light pancakes) with marinated salmon, black and red caviar and beef stroganoff.

Angleterre Hotel
Located right next to the Astoria, this hotel has nearly the same view of St. Isaac's Cathedral. It was built in the early 19th century as a residential building, underwent major renovation in 1845-1846 and was converted to a hotel in 1876. Angleterre has changed names several times and is best known as the hotel where famous Russian poet Sergei Yesenin committed suicide in 1925.

The Idiot
Named after the Dostoevsky novel, the Idiot aims to re-create the atmosphere of 19th century St. Petersburg, complete with heavy wood furnishing, fire places, well-stocked bookcases and patrons brooding over chess boards. The menu features a mix of Russian and international cuisine, offering a great selection of blini and pelmeni (dumplings) and, perhaps most importantly, complimentary mini-shots of vodka. One thing you won't find: meat. The Idiot is strictly a vegetarian affair.

The Grand Hotel Europe
Located just off Nevsky Prospekt, the city's main avenue, Grand Hotel Europe is arguably St. Petersburg's most luxurious hotel. Opened in 1875 and remodeled in the Art Nouveau style in the 1910s, the Grand Hotel Europe strikes visitors with its marble-and-gilt interiors and sweeping staircases. The visitor list features, among others, George Bernard Shaw, Tchaikovsky, Dostoevsky, and, more recently, Elton John and Jacques Chirac. The hotel has five restaurants, including a caviar bar and a seasonal outside patio for use during St. Petersburg's famed "white nights."

 

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