Odessa International Film Festival Vows to Open Despite Slashed Funding

The Lobster Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

The Lobster Still - H 2015

Ukraine's economic crisis and separatist conflict continue to challenge key arts event.

Ukraine's leading international arts event, the Odessa Film Festival, will open its sixth edition early next month despite losing Ministry of Culture and other funding as the country struggles in the face of its second year of political and economic crisis.

Festival organizers, who last year substantially scaled back the event as funding was jeopardized just months after Russian seized Ukraine's Crimean territory and civil war erupted in the East of the country, say finances are even tougher this year.

The Ukrainian FIlm Agency — part of the Ministry of Culture — officially denied the festival's request for state funding, officially claiming that public spending on culture had been suspended. Organizers say that privately officials said some money was available but it was such a small sum it would be "insufficient for the festival."

Odessa, the western Black Sea port city that hosts the festival — which is far from the front lines of the separatist conflict in the East where an uneasy ceasefire is currently barely holding between Ukrainian government forces and separatists the West says are Russian armed and supported — has provided less than $50,000. The figure, one million in local currency the hryvna, would have been worth nearly double that a year ago, but rampant inflation sparked by the national crisis has seen its value tumble by over 40 percent in the past year.

Support from the international film community, which last year rallied as Ukraine's plight made international headlines, has also dwindled.

An international appeal to rights holders to reduce or waive screening fees last year earned a generous response worldwide, but this year organizers say there have been no discounts. The festival says it "fully understands" that many, often small, distributors rely upon festival screening fees as a business model and that Ukraine is not dominating the headlines in the same way as last year, but in financial terms it feels "the difference very much."

Undaunted, the festival will open on July 10 for its sixth edition and close on July 18, thanks to the help of local sponsors and plans a full competition program — due to be announced next week.

Special screenings of hits from the Berlin and Cannes festivals, including Jafar Panahi's Berlinale Golden Bear winner Taxi, Cannes Grand Prix winner Son of Saul (directed by Laszlo Nemes) and Yorgos Lanthimos' dark romantic comedy and English-language debut The Lobster, were announced on Tuesday.

Festival director Julia Sinkeyvich says the event has managed to maintain its professional level despite the funding crisis.

"The Ukrainian film industry — like the rest of the country and society — remains in a difficult and challenging situation," she told The Hollywood Reporter.

"Culture has little support from official institutions. For example, Ukrainian Film State Agency has cut down the funding of national film industry almost twice, and a lot of Ukrainian films in progress have been put on hold — something we have noticed working on the selection for our national competition program — most Ukrainian films that applied to us this year were shorts, not features."

Last year had been a strong year for Ukrainian film, she added, citing films such as Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy's acclaimed debut about the underworld of the deaf mute community, The Tribe, and Sergei Loznitsa's Maidan, the documentary about the revolution that preceded the current separatist conflict.

"Last year, in the most challenging conditions, we succeeded in putting on the festival, despite a much constrained budget," Sinkeyvich added.

"This year things are still challenging, but we are confident that the sixth edition will prove that OIFF is here to stay."