Moscow Film Fest: Sanctions Keep Hollywood Stars Away

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Director Nikita Mikhalkov

A festival screening "with basically just the jury and a few critics" is not what filmmakers are looking for, said distributor Sam Klebanov.

MOSCOW -- Russian film critics and professionals are questioning the future of the Moscow Film Festival as its 36th edition wraps after being characterized by a lackluster competition lineup and absence of high profile international guests.

International sanctions against Russia over its intervention in Ukraine and seizure of the Crimean territory earlier this year put off many international directors. No Hollywood figures were present this year.

That's unusual for an event headed by Oscar-wining director Nikita Mikhalkov (1994's Burnt by the Sun) that has, in the past, prided itself on its glitz and Hollywood pulling power, with stars such as Jack Nicholson and Sean Penn among the red carpet visitors in previous years.

A competition program that lacked significant new finds and movies, such as Anton Corbijn's Chechen-themed A Most Wanted Man -- simultaneously nominated for an award at the Edinburgh Film Festival -- has sparked a bout of soul-searching in the Russian film community.

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Mikhalkov, as fest topper, has been typically robust in his defense of the event, saying that it was "not surprising" that some international filmmakers had been scared away by sanctions.

"It is unpleasant," he conceded before the opening of the festival June 19, but added: "There is something positive about it. There is a necessity to look at ourselves; I personally feel a desire to be independent and express protest at the idea of 'punishing' Russia."

Andrei Plakhov, one of Russia's top film critics and a former president of international critics' body FIPRESCI, denied sanctions had had any significant impact on the festival.

"There were no problems. Almost all the movies chosen by a selection committee, we have received, and if there were exceptions, that was for other reasons," he said.

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Polish director Krzysztof Zanussi, who recently signed a letter of support for Ukrainian director Oleg Sentsov, who is being held by Russian security services on terrorism charges supporters say are trumped up, still came to the festival, Plakhov points out.

But the festival has not been immune from trends in Russian politics altogether: Ordered to Forget, Chechnya's first film about wartime repression was permitted at one ill-advertised festival screening.

The screening, attended by many from Moscow's Chechen community, sparked a vigorous debate on the merits of showing a film that paints a stark picture of Stalin's murderous policy.

"Festivals at this level cannot exist within a framework of censorship; distribution certificates are not required to show films at festivals and if such a vulgar rule were introduced in Russia it would undermine the very foundations of the festival," Plakhov adds.

Others have been more critical of this year's festival.

Distributor and film blogger Anton Mazurov believes the festival needs major reform if it is to remain relevant to international filmmakers.

In a seven-point manifesto published mid-festival he points out that festivals such as Berlin are an integral part of their city, with multiple venues, modern ticketing systems and packed screenings.

Moscow, by comparison, remains an elite event with only one major screening venue -- the October multiplex -- and barely any opportunities for Russian filmmakers to meet with their foreign colleagues.

"It's time to stop saving money for basics in favor of bombast and entourage," Mazurov says. "The festival must realize that competent accreditation systems, audience dialogues with filmmakers and a way for locals and guests to meet together, are essential."

Distributor and television personality, Sam Klebanov, said the festival needed to improve access.

"Filmmakers like to show there films where there is a chance to create a buzz; screening a movie at the Moscow festival with basically just the jury and a few critics is not what they are looking for," Klebanov said.