Vilnius film festival’s boycott of Russian cinema sparks debate

Lithuania’s most prestigious film festival has cancelled all Russian film screenings and will promote Ukrainian cinema.

People hold sunflowers, Ukraine's national flower, at the film festival's opening ceremony
People hold sunflowers, Ukraine's national flower, at the film festival's opening ceremony [Courtesy of Vilnius International Film Festival]

Vilnius, Lithuania – Running from March 24 to April 3, the Vilnius International Film Festival is one of the first European events to act on the petition published by the Ukrainian Film Academy to boycott Russian cinema.

Algirdas Ramaska, Vilnius film festival’s chief executive officer, told Al Jazeera that the festival has removed all five Russian films from the programme – regardless of the directors’ stances on the war and Russian President Vladimir Putin – in response to the call from the Ukrainian film industry.

“We answered their call as we felt that this wasn’t the right time to celebrate, or to promote, Russian filmmakers, Russian cinema, Russian culture,” he said.

“The boycott shows all Russian people that what’s happening isn’t OK and that this war is against their whole country, against their own citizens.”

On 23 March, the so-called “Day Zero”, the festival organised a Ukrainian Cinema Day and screened five films from the war-torn country: Mariupolis, The Distant Barking of Dogs, Atlantis, Bad Roads, and My Thoughts Are Silent.

The revenue went to support several organisations chosen by Ukrainian filmmakers, and Ukrainian refugees could attend the screenings for free by showing their IDs.

On 1 April, another Ukrainian Day will take place – during which industry representatives and stakeholders will meet to discuss stances on Russian cinema and how to support the Ukrainian film industry.

“We want to create a platform to gather European industry professionals, to give voice to Ukrainian filmmakers and institutions,” Ramaska said.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February has triggered a widespread backlash in the arts and culture world, with many film festivals, art galleries, and other venues cancelling Russian events, screenings and performances.

However, the boycotts have also triggered debate over whether the moves are proportionate or helpful to Ukraine.

Screen with festival logo in front of audience
The film festival officially opened on March 24 [Courtesy of Vilnius International Film Festival]

Vilnius film festival’s boycott has gained wide approval among the Lithuanian film community. Lithuanian director and activist Romas Zabarauskas praised the move as showing “true maturity and professionalism” and told Al Jazeera “it can help Ukraine to defend itself and Russia to have a regime change.

“We should focus our efforts to make it happen. The whole point of this particular boycott is to stop Russia’s terror as fast as we can, and eventually we won’t need to boycott any more.

“Regardless of the effects,” he added, “it’s the moral thing to do.”

Journalist and film critic Daria Badior, speaking to Al Jazeera by Zoom from Lviv, western Ukraine, also backed a full boycott.

“I think Russian culture in general should be put on hold,” she said. “Even if some voices are acting independently and not being funded by the state, they are still articulating the imperial stances on Ukraine.”

She said that Russian artworks about Ukraine often did not understand Ukrainian culture.

“That’s why I think Russian cultural makers, journalists and critics should start their inner discussions about what they’ve produced.”

Yet while many people in the arts and culture world hail the boycott and Ukraine-focused initiatives as a sign of solidarity, others are critical of the full boycotts.

Among them is Heleen Gerritsen, head of goEast – a Central and Eastern European film festival.

“I think excluding Russia from Eurimages [a European cinema support fund], cutting ties with their state organisations, their ministry of culture and large studios are powerful signals, while the devastating war in Ukraine is still going on. I support the economic sanctions as well,” she told Al Jazeera.

“But if we want Russian imperial ambitions in Central and Eastern Europe to stop, we will also have to support the opposition inside of Russia.”

Meanwhile, Bernd Buder, programme director at Cottbus film festival, said he can “emotionally understand the boycott” but disagreed with punishing filmmakers that are critical of Putin.

“We will by no means celebrate Russian cinema, and who knows if that will ever be possible again,” he said. “At the same time, we think it is important to keep in touch with Russian filmmakers who are critical of their country, as critical as they can be, and we reserve the right to show their films and discuss them with the audience.”

Bulgarian film critic Mariana Hristova praised Vilnius festival’s focus on Ukrainian cinema but worries cultural boycotts will harm artists more than the state.

“There are so many Russian filmmakers who are opposing Putin’s regime and were even personally oppressed – those ones are suffering as well and they need support too, instead of being silence,” Hristova told Al Jazeera.

“In this regard, I consider the complete boycott unfair. Films and their authors should be revised case by case and presented within an adequate context, provided by the programmers.”

Buder said cinema and culture could play an important role in the post-war healing process.

“I hope that contacts between individual filmmakers will lead to both sides coming to terms with the war, its causes and its consequences,” said Buder.

However, Badior believes that film festivals that are not imposing a full boycott of Russia should question some of their positions towards culture and politics.

“Festivals should reconsider their approach in seeing film and culture as places for dialogue,” she said. “Culture can be very hostile, it can turn into a weapon and it is a weapon now.”

Source: Al Jazeera