Film of the Former Soviet Space
Text Vladimir Kozlov
Back in Soviet times, each republic of the USSR had its own film industry, centered in its own film studio, usually located in the capital of the republic. The biggest republics — Russia and Ukraine, each had several film studios. All told, these studios put out more than a hundred feature films a year. Although their quality differed dramatically, all these films were distributed to theaters throughout the Soviet territory, making the country’s film industry one of the most profitable sectors of the economy.
All this ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, which brought the planned economy and government support for the film industry to an end. Studios in Soviet successor states were forced to survive on their own. A population that had no money to go to the movies meant that huge film studio complexes were standing idle, with only a few sections in use, primarily by crews shooting commercials.
Russia’s film industry — the biggest in the former Soviet Union — was the first to begin recovery in the early 2000s and is now producing almost as many movies annually as the entire Soviet Union did some 20 years ago. But what is the situation in the other former Soviet republics?
Most of them don’t have much to boast about. Studio complexes badly need renovation, and the national film industries seldom produce more than a handful of features a year. One exception is Ukraine, which seems to be following in the footsteps of Russia’s film renaissance. Earlier this year, the Ukrainian film Safo grossed more than $1 million at the domestic box office, becoming the first homegrown movie to do so.
This watershed triggered comparisons with Russia’s movie industry seven years ago, when that country’s first domestically produced film, Antikiller, crossed the $1 million threshold. Ukraine has operable facilities at all of its studio complexes — Odessa (pictured above), Yalta, and Kiev’s Dovzhenko — which attract domestic filmmakers as well as those from abroad, but on the artistic side, Ukrainian filmmakers still have to prove themselves.
On an international level, however, the fact that Ukraine has not yet joined an international convention on film industry cooperation is certainly a disadvantage. Another big problem for the Ukrainian film industry is that there is no massive state support program as there is in Russia, where about 3 billion rubles ($120 million) was allotted for support to the film industry in 2008.
In Ukraine, the state supports about six features a year, which has led to the domination of domestic theaters by movies made in Russia and the United States. There are plans to bring state support for the film industry from the current level of $10 million per year to about $80 million annually, but nothing is certain yet.
In 2007, box office revenues increased in Ukraine by 26 percent to $59.8 million, making it the former Soviet Union’s second-largest market, but a controversial law enacted in 2008 requiring the mandatory dubbing or subtitling of all movies — including Russian-language ones — into Ukrainian may have curtailed theater attendance.
Another major filmmaking power in the Soviet Union was Georgia, especially when it came to what later became known as “art house” cinema. Renowned director Sergei Parajanov made several of his movies in Georgia, and Monanieba [Repentance] by Tengiz Abuladze, an allegorical portrayal of an authoritarian ruler, was one of the most controversial films of Gorbachev’s perestroika era in the 1980s. Since those times, Georgia’s movie industry has slowed down substantially.
Today just a few feature films a year are produced, though some receive a measure of international exposure, such as Midioda matarebeli [The Train Went On and On] by veteran director Giorgi Shengelaya. There are attempts at commercial moviemaking, notably, Rusuli Samkudhedi [The Russian Triangle] by Aleko Tsabadze, which was screened at the Moscow International Film Festival two years ago and was later shown in Russian theaters, becoming the first Georgian film to be released in the country in about 15 years. That movie was also Georgia’s entry in the best foreign language film Oscar race.
Meanwhile, with local distribution systems still weak and foreign distributors unwilling to buy pictures produced in countries whose names they can hardly pronounce, the only opportunity to be seen for many movies made in the former Soviet republics is film festivals. New fests pop up in the region from time to time as well, like, for instance, the Eurasia International Film Festival. This festival, which focuses primarily on films from the Central Asian region, was held in the Kazakh capital of Astana for the fifth time last September. This year, the festival’s Grand-Prix for Best Film went to Farewell, Gulsary! by Kazakh director Ardak Amirkulov, while his compatriot Adilkhan Yerzhanov collected the best director’s prize for Bakhytzhamal.
Small film industries in the Baltic states are developing along the lines of the European Union’s film policies, with some support from the local government and some more cash coming from the European institution, but the scale of production remains very small.
The situation is a little different in Belarus, a country where the film industry is still fully controlled by the state. This does not, however, prevent foreign film crews (primarily Russian) from shooting there. When it comes to making their own films, government funds are meager, allowing for about one movie a year — such as 2003’s period piece Anastasiya Slutskaya by Yuri Yelkhov. At a recent meeting at the Belarusfi lm studio complex, the country’s President Alexander Lukashenko slammed domestic filmmakers for poor use of state money and sloppy work but went on to promise some additional state funds for making “good films.” However, what the criteria of “good films” would be and who will distribute the funds remains unclear.