Cinema wars: meet the man who picks which Russian films to ban in Ukraine

Ivan the Terrible is out.
Ivan the Terrible is out.
Image: Reuters/Thomas Peter
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In the past few months, Ukraine has banned more than 100 Russian films and TV series, following a Feb. 2015 law adopted by the Ukrainian parliament, recently signed by president Poroshenko, that bans the showing of all TV shows and films made in Russia after Jan. 1, 2014.

The ban also extends to any film or video “propagating the Russian police or armed forces” released after 1991, and any film or video ever that is considered to be “anti-Ukrainian,” wherever it was made. In a special report for Meduza, reporter Yekaterina Sergatskova spoke to Filipp Ilyenko, the head of Ukraine’s State Cinema Committee (Goskino), a staunch supporter of the new bans, and film expert Aksinya Kurina, who views Ukraine’s expert commission on films as “an institution of political censorship.”

Filipp Ilyenko

Head of Ukraine’s State Agency on Film, head of Goskino’s expert commission on the distribution and screening of films.

“We weren’t the first ones to start banning movies. The first time Russians did this was in 2002, when they banned the [Ukrainian] movie Molitva o Getmane Mazepe (“A Prayer for Hetman Mazepa”) [about the Cossack Hetman who deserted Russian tsar Peter I to fight with Sweden in 1708]. They never published any formal documents about it, but Russia’s culture minister Mikhail Shvydkoi did publicly condemn it, and everyone in the film industry always acts on such remarks in Putin’s Russia.

“When we ban something, we go through legal channels.

“By the way, even the Russian press has acknowledged repeatedly that a large number of Russian films serve ideological and propagandistic purposes. After the first war in Chechnya, where the Kremlin lost on the information front, they learned their lesson. After that, they started treating the media and filmmakers like instruments for shaping public opinion. With each passing year, they’ve become more aggressive about it.

“The information war with Ukraine started when Putin came to power, and it peaked in 2008-2010, when a whole range of films appeared promoting the very same military forces now fighting in eastern Ukraine against our citizens. These movies cultivated the idea of honest, fair, and strong Russian servicemen, and the average person sitting in front of his TV screen eats it up. But then these people come out with signs saying, “Putin, send troops!” and when these troops appear, they spread aggression and chaos.”

You once said that Ukraine’s State Agency on Film won’t restrict showing films that “pose no threat.” What movies did you have in mind?

“It’s easier to say what films do pose a threat. I can lay out four basic criteria that I’ve suggested adding to the law:

“First, any films promoting the government agencies of aggressor-states in all forms (historical and contemporary); second, films that denigrate our national character; third, films that justify or fail to recognize the annexation and occupation of parts of Ukrainian territory; and fourth, films that distort Ukraine’s history or imply that there is no such thing as a Ukrainian state or nation.

“But these initiatives are only appearing now because we are at war. Before the war, we were incredibly, even excessively, tolerant of these films. I think this was a mistake, because we were a colony when it came to information and culture; we were living according to Russia’s cultural interests and values—not our own. This sowed problems that we’re reaping today in Crimea and in the East. Today, there’s no moral way we could show these movies about the Russian special forces, when they could be seen by the wife or the mother of a Ukrainian soldier who just died at the hands of the very same special forces.”

Aksinya Kurina

A journalist and film expert. From 2007 to 2010, Kurina worked in Ukraine’s Culture Ministry (and later at Goskino) as a member of the expert commission on the display and distribution of films.

“Five years ago, I joined the expert commission in order to work against censorship in cinema. I was concerned that some films weren’t getting a certificate for distribution, which meant they were effectively banned in Ukrainian movie theaters and on Ukrainian television.

“The commission worked like this: experts would come to screenings at the Culture Ministry, or they’d get the films on DVD to watch at home, and then they’d complete a form, indicating the appropriate age-rating for the movie. It was on the basis of these reports that officials cast their votes [on whether or not to ban a film]. There was never any discussion, except for my debates afterwards with those who voted in favor of banning a film.

“In addition to the commission’s film experts and art critics were psychologists and figures who’d positioned themselves as spokespeople for the public, who didn’t know anything about cinema or child psychology. I have no idea why these people were invited. I eventually left the commission after one of its various absurd decisions: banning Sacha Baron Cohen’s film Bruno.

“The very existence of such a commission is absurd in a country that says its future lies with the European Union. De jure and de facto, this institution amounts to state censorship, which violates Article 15 of the Ukrainian constitution. I think it’s appropriate to have an expert committee of child psychologists to assign age ratings, but we shouldn’t be telling adults what they can and can’t see.

“Since Filipp Ilyenko took over, Goskino has become an assembly line for bans on films and TV shows. They even banned Taras Bulba, which stars the Ukrainian movie star Bogan Stupka. You have to hand it to some film critics on the commission, however, who opposed the ban.

“Unfortunately, the situation with the armed conflict [in eastern Ukraine] and the information aggression [from Russia] has become an excuse for officials and politicians to turn to populism. In February, Rada deputies voted to ban on Ukrainian television all films and shows made in Russia after January 1, 2014.

“So even if there’s something [made in Russia] that criticizes the Russian authorities, you can’t air it on Ukrainian TV. It’s pure schizophrenia: in Ukraine there are Russian banks operating, stores selling Russian goods, and so on, but [Russian] films are prohibited. This commission’s bans do nothing to solve Ukraine’s problems in the information space—they only damage the country’s reputation.”