Russia's Filmmakers Clash With West Over Ukraine, Split Over Crimea

Boris Khlebnikov P

Top directors including Fedor Bondarchuk and Alexander Sokurov are at odds over moves to make the semi-autonomous region part of Russia.

MOSCOW -- The Kremlin's confrontation with the West over Ukraine and the breakaway region of Crimea has sharply divided Russia's film community.

Producers, directors and writers have gone public both for and against Crimea reuniting with Russia.

An overwhelming majority of the Black Sea peninsular territory's adult population of 1.8 million voted to become part of Russia again in a referendum Sunday, widely condemned internationally as illegal.

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Official sources in Crimea, a semi-autonomous region of Ukraine that was, for 300 years until 1954, part of Russia, claimed more than 97 percent voted in favor of reunification with Russia. Turnout was above 80 percent, election officials said.

Crimea formally applied to be admitted as part of the Russian Federation Monday and President Vladimir Putin is scheduled to address the Russian parliament in Moscow Tuesday as formal steps to incorporate the territory are taken.

The moves are unlikely to heal the rifts in the film and artistic community.

A group of directors whose works are often seen at the Cannes and Berlin film festivals issued a call to support their colleagues in Ukraine.

Independent filmmakers union Kinosoyuz -- one of two separate unions representing directors in Russia -- called for people to "say no to the plans to divide our nations."

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The open letter was signed by top directors including Boris Khlebnikov and Alexei Popogrebsky, both of whom in recent years had films in official selection in Berlin; union head Andrei Proshkin; and documentary filmmakers Vitaly Mansky and Maria Razbezhkina. Other signatories included film historian Naum Kleiman and critics Andrei Plakhov and Viktor Matizen.

Alexander Sokurov, the St. Petersburg-based director whose films have been screened at Cannes, Venice and other festivals noted separately that Ukraine and Russia were two different nations.

"We are not one nation with the Ukrainians, we are different. We have different cultures within us. It’s not for nothing that the Ukrainians have always wanted to live with a separate government," he wrote. "Yes, we are close, we have a lot in common, but that doesn’t mean that we are one nation. We are different and we need to respect and value this difference."

Others in the film world here have exhibited support for the Russian government's approach to Ukraine.

An open letter in support of the Kremlin's line on Crimea was published on the Culture Ministry's website.

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"We want the unity of our peoples and our cultures to have a stable future," reads the letter. "This is why we firmly state our support of the stance of the President of the Russian Federation on Ukraine and Crimea."

"[Russia's cultural figures] cannot be cold-hearted impassive observers," the letter reads further.

The list of signatories to that letter includes Fedor Bondarchuk, the director of Stalingrad, Russia's all-time local box-office champion since the collapse of the Soviet Union; actor Sergei Bezrukov; director Stanislav Govorukhin, who was Putin's campaign chief during his presidential campaign in early 2012; and general director of Mosfilm studio Karen Shakhnazarov.

"My late father, who was 100 percent Armenian, took part in the liberation of Crimea [from the Nazi troops in WWII], and if he were still alive, he wouldn't have understood me not signing this letter," Shakhnazarov told the online newspaper

Some whose names had been added to the letter later complained that they hadn't signed anything. The ministry apologized, calling it a "technical error."

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Some film personalities reported to be opposed to the Kremlin on Crimea denied they were against Putin and have been quick to stress their support.

"I have always supported Putin," veteran actor Leonid Bronevoy was quoted as saying by the news agency ITAR-TASS.

Film and theater director Mark Zakharov denounced the letter from filmmakers opposing the Kremlin's stance as "provocation." Zakharov was among those who spoke Saturday at a pro-Kremlin rally in Moscow; at the same time those opposed to Putin's stance, including Pussy Riot's Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, joined a peace march nearby.

In a similar move, actor Konstantin Khabensky, known for Timur Bekmambetov's Night Watch and Day Watch and last year's festival hit Geographer Drank His Globe Away, claimed that statements made on his part on social media, in which he seemed to express his disapproval of Russia's policy toward Ukraine, were fabricated. However, the actor, who also recently appeared in World War Z, wouldn't reveal his stand on the Crimea issue.

"I wasn't going to comment on that," he was quoted as saying by the online newspaper Life News.

Meanwhile, some filmmakers went as far as accusing the West of plotting an economic takeover of Russia.

"Of course, they wouldn't even mention a forceful takeover of Russia," veteran actor and screenwriter Alexander Adabashyan said in an interview with the newspaper AiF. "But they will gradually plant people … into the government. So that oil is sent where they want it and for the price they want it."