Miffed by MIFF
Inside Russia’s film festivals
In June, Russia’s two main film festivals, the national Kinotavr and the country’s oldest international film event, Moscow International Film Festival (MIFF), are to be held, and both are far from being in good shape.
For about two decades, Kinotavr—the 21st festival is scheduled to be held in the Black Sea resort of Sochi from June 5 to 13—has been the main showcase for the domestic cinema industry, and the main venue for foreign festivals’ selectors to turn to for new Russian films.
In the years preceding the global financial downturn, the festival was able to attract major sponsors and was held lavishly at the Zhemchuzhina Hotel. Critics said that the event was primarily an opportunity for Russian film industry people to have a seaside vacation, and that the awarding of prizes was secondary.
In any case, the festival’s budget had to be dramatically cut last year, and just a few weeks before this year’s festival is about to start, the news came that co-owner Igor Tolstunov and one of the festival’s main sponsors, the cell operator Vympelcom, are pulling out.
And although the other co-owner, Alexander Rodnyansky, to whom Tolstunov had sold his share in the festival, insisted that this year’s event is going to run as planned, and he would be providing $2.5 million out of his own pocket on top of 7 million roubles ($241,000) coming from the culture ministry and local authorities, the future of the festival remains uncertain.
Rodnyansky told the Russian media that in order for the festival to continue, either the government should step in and provide funding, or a new major sponsor should be found, both options being extremely uncertain in the aftermath of the financial crisis.
Another constraint on this year’s festival is the fact that film production in Russia has declined substantially because of the economic downturn and a recent reform of the state funding system for the film industry. Because of this the government hasn’t provided a single rouble for a new film project for nearly a year and a half.
Last year, Kinotavr’s organizers said it was the last time that they had such a huge selection of films for the official competition, as most of them were completed or nearly completed before the crisis hit the industry. And although this year’s lineup has not yet been announced, chances are that it is not going to be very strong.
Similarly, the Moscow International Film Festival (MIFF), which is to be held in for the 32nd time at the Oktyabr multiplex cinema from June 17-26, is also experiencing financial problems. But that’s not its main problem as, unlike Kinotavr, which has a more or less clear goal of being the domestic film industry’s showcase, MIFF has been desperately trying to find its identity for years, and this year is not going to be an exception.
In Soviet times, the festival, which was first held in 1935 as a one-off even and was resumed in 1959 on a regular basis, in spite of the dominance of communist ideology, attracted some major-league international filmmakers by its anti-bourgeois and anti-capitalist stance, which might explain why Federico Fellini’s 8½ was shown at the festival. It won the main prize in 1963.
But the heyday of MIFF coincided with Gorbachev’s reforms of the mid-1980s, and the interest in the Soviet Union, which was opening up to the rest of the world, was the main factor that brought major foreign films and filmmakers to Moscow. In that respect, 1987’s festival was probably the best one, with the jury headed by US top-level star Robert de Niro and Fellini’s Intervista (Interview) in the official competition (predictably, the festival’s main prize went to the Italian director’s movie). And although at the time the festival was quite chaotic and didn’t have a clear message or strategy, the atmosphere of newly-granted freedom under Perestroika was its major asset.
However, things changed when Russia went out of fashion. The festival’s organizers were unable to define a strategy, message and philosophy that would make the Moscow festival stand out among dozens of international film events. While the festival was turned into an annual event in 1999, as opposed to being held every other year, it has been largely avoided by major international filmmakers.
True, top-league directors like Quentin Tarantino or Emir Kusturica have turned up in Moscow for the festival, but they were just hanging out, while preferring to send their movies to more prestigious events.
One other thing that might have made the international film community sceptical about the Moscow Film Festival is the fact that domestic movies of dubious artistic merits have several times in recent years earned the favour of the international jury, picking up the main prizes, like Nikolai Dostal’s Pete on the Way to Heaven last year or Vera Storozheva’s Travelling with Pets three years ago.
Most likely, this year’s festival’s official selection won’t contain any gems. But the good thing about the Moscow festival is that it normally shows lots of good films promoted by its international competitors, giving people in Moscow an opportunity to view movies that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to see for another several months, or ever on a big screen. Traditionally, all the best films from the Berlin International Film Festival and the Cannes International Film Festival, which are held earlier in the year, are part of the non-official programs.
Most of the programs are still in the works and are to be announced closer to the festival’s date, but among those which are to debut this year is Generation Zero, compiled of films that had the biggest influence on domestic directors of the younger generation.
Among other events worth checking out are a retrospective of movies by Italian director Sergio Leone and several French programs on the occasion of the celebration of the Year of France in Russia.