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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russian Film Fading From View




In Vladimir Khotinenko's latest film, a soft rumble accompanies the sex scenes - the sound of portable heaters brought in to warm the unclad actors during wintertime shooting because the studio, one of Russia's largest, couldn't pay its energy bills.


"It was like a comedy. Those heaters sounded like an airplane," said Khotinenko, among the cream of the film industry and one of only two Russian directors chosen to participate in this month's 21st Moscow International Film Festival. Yet, money problems mean his film, "Strastnoi Bulvar," may barely be ready for its premiere.


Indeed, editing Khotinenko's film last summer took longer than planned because the sweltering cutting room had no air-conditioning and the machinery kept overheating.


Khotinenko's hardships, and those of the bedraggled festival - which critics say has attracted second- and third-rate films - reflect the sorry state of Russia's movie industry. Lack of cash is their most obvious problem; they're also hobbled by a surge in piracy, foreign competition and the collapse of the centralized Soviet distribution system. Soviet directors artfully survived communist censorship, producing poignant, sometimes piercing commentaries on love and war. Some critics even credit daring, perestroika-era films - including "Repentance" and "Little Vera" - with helping bring down the Soviet Union, by laying bare its faults and giving voice to viewers' fears and frustrations.


But those filmmakers owed their survival to funding from the same government that sought to restrict them. Generous state support for the arts has now evaporated, and private sponsors are scarce in a country that has been in economic decline throughout this decade.


"Before the censor was the ministry [of culture]. But now we have a new censor that goes by the name of the dollar," Vladimir Naumov, director of Mosfilm's Soyuz Studio, said. "At least with the censor you could argue. But the dollar is cold and indifferent. No dollars - no film.


"Before we used to shoot five or six films a year. Now we only have the money for one, maybe two," said Naumov, who, like many directors, relies on foreign funding to get a film project off the ground.


There have been several joint productions with European film companies in the last 10 years, but these cooperative ventures have slowed to a trickle, Naumov said. And last August's ruble collapse succeeded in scaring off several potential investors.


One film director who has been consistently successful in attracting foreign investment is Nikita Mikhalkov, whose 1994 film, "Burnt by the Sun," won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Following that success, Mikhalkov rounded up $40 million - a heart-stopping sum in Russian film circles - to make his latest movie, "The Barber of Siberia." He even persuaded the cash-strapped government to pitch in $10 million. The film opened this spring in Russia to mixed reviews, and it's unclear whether box office receipts at home will justify its huge cost.


Widespread video piracy has not helped the industry. Hollywood films have sometimes appeared on video before they are released in U.S. theaters. "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace" is premiering in Russia at the Moscow Film Festival - but it has been available on video since early this summer.


Hollywood studios claim they lose about $300 million annually to piracy in Russia, but the blow is even more devastating for the Russian film industry. Filmmakers cannot compete with the allure of foreign films, which, after years of being denied access, Russian viewers are now devouring.


In some cases Russian directors have tried to mimic the American genre, but with limited success, Naum Klayman, director of Moscow's Cinema Museum, said.


"They are working in a stranger's genre," Klayman said, characterizing most of these Russian-American hybrids as banal. "You can't take a wheel and expect it to go without a motor. We took the steering wheel, but not the whole car."