Column: At True/False, Russian filmmakers speak out for art and against their country’s attack on Ukraine

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“I’m sorry to look so…sad,” the young man said onstage. Dressed in a bulky dark hoodie, he looked and didn’t look like a filmmaker presenting his award-winning documentary on the first night of the True/False Film Fest at Columbia, Miss. The movie “Where Are We Headed?” won two awards at the Amsterdam International Documentary Film Festival last year. Capturing a year in the life of a big city subway system, it encompasses a panoply of human experiences – the faceless morning commute, the peaceful burden of a sleeping child, a noisy New Year’s celebration, the police taking a stand to quell a protest.

But this metro is in Moscow, its baroque stations are a reminder of the Soviet Union’s abandonment of churches for proletarian sacristies, and the film’s emphasis on ordinary life can only serve as a reminder of what is no longer possible in Ukraine since the recent Russian invasion. .

No one is more aware of this than the man who created it, Ruslan Fedotow. “It’s been an intense time,” he said after apologizing for his low-key appearance. “I read the news every minute. My friends and I did not vote for our current dictator, and we just want this war to end. I hope this film helps explain some of what is happening in Russia,” he added by way of a shortened introduction. “So enjoy it, but yeah.”

He wasn’t the only filmmaker to present his work at the annual documentary festival last weekend with an air of protest and apology. “GES-2” by Nastia Korkia lyrically recounts the conversion of a Moscow power plant into a cultural center designed by Renzo Piano just opposite the Kremlin.

“I think it’s important to make a statement about the war,” she said instead of presenting her film. “It should be over and the troops should be withdrawn. My friends and fellow filmmakers, we are against it and totally devastated and saddened by this.

Indeed, “GES-2” is preceded by an open letter from Russian filmmakers against the war, which drew much applause from a packed house.

True/False, which was the last international film festival held in person before COVID-19 shut everything down in 2020, opened March 3 as the first to return to normal in person in 2022 – and the first to be held in the wake of Russia’s attack on Ukraine and subsequent sanctions and boycotts. While other festivals are wondering what to do with Russian filmmakers, the organizers of True/False said: “We show films from unique and independent Russian filmmakers. Filmmakers are not subsidized by Russian oligarchs or the government. Prohibiting artists from expressing themselves is not True/False.

The public certainly agreed. Both films were well-attended and warmly applauded for what they were – films made by artists who actively lament the Russian government’s decision to attack its neighbour.

Fittingly, this year’s lineup also includes Sergei Loznitsa’s four-hour chronicle on how Lithuania became the first republic to leave the USSR.

“Mr. Landsbergis,” which focuses on how the title quiet music teacher came to lead his country to freedom, recounts Soviet politics in the early 1990s in near excruciating detail. But the final hour and a half documents a Soviet army attack on unarmed Lithuanians and the near-miraculous survival of the Baltic state.Russian brutality and the nation’s resilience resonate.

Sergei Loznitsa’s four-hour chronicle, “Mr. Landsbergis”, tells how Lithuania became the first republic to leave the USSR. Loznitsa is Ukrainian.

(True/False Film Festival)

Loznitsa, who is Ukrainian, spoke out against the war, as well as against the boycott of Russian filmmakers. He was unable to do press at the festival because, it was announced before the screening of his film, he was traveling through Poland to meet his parents who were fleeing Ukraine.

Korkia and Fedotow, who form a couple, currently live in Hungary; they had also considered skipping the festival.

“It’s hard to be here,” Korkia said in an interview. “Going to parties and talking to the public. We check the news all the time. I have family in Moscow and many friends in Ukraine. That’s what’s so amazing. Russia and Ukraine are so close – my grandmother, who recently passed away, spent her best years in Ukraine.

Korkia had worried about how she and her film would be received by Americans and was amazed by the warm reception. During the Q&A portion of the screening I attended, however, his hopeful ending prompted a comment. “GES-2”, commissioned by the VAC Foundation to capture the creation of this building, ends with Piano saying, among other things, that beautiful cities are important because they make good citizens, and good citizens create a better world.

The stark contrast between his message and the continued destruction of Ukrainian cities was the subtext of a question about what Russian and American artists can do.

Korkia reiterated her stance against the war, adding that many of her friends have been arrested for protesting. “As I see this movie now, I would probably change the ending,” she said. “All GES-2 activities have ceased. All the artists closed their shows and left the building, which is sad but the only thing they could do, considering what is happening in Ukraine.

She’s glad she came to True/False so she could let the Americans know all about it. “And now I can spread the word that Americans want our movies. Movies are meant to build bridges.

With its multi-layered consideration of what makes a work of art, “GES-2” is both very Russian – one segment captures a man chanting (in Russian, obviously) the words “Sorrow Conquers Happiness” over and over. to different melodies – and wonderfully universal. Construction workers who dig, lift, assemble and scrape can be anywhere; a GoPro-assisted series of scenes chronicling the completion of a chimney is stunning in any language.

“GES-2”, by Nastia Korkia, documents the construction of a cultural center designed by Renzo Piano near the Kremlin.

(True/False Film Festival)

” Where are we going ? is a very different kind of film, although Korkia served as a producer (and Fedotow shot a few scenes in “GES-2”). Originally from Belarus, Fedotow lived for many years in Moscow and became fascinated by the altered state of life in its metro “At first I wanted to represent this kind of trance, this mode in which people enter, but the first day where I started filming was VE Day. [in which Russians celebrate the surrender of Nazi Germany in 1945]and I realized that whatever happens above also happens below.

So he spent a year documenting life below the surface, a year that included protests against the arrest of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, which led, in one scene, to police swarming and the closure of at least one metro station.

Fedotow also wishes he could do a different edit on his film in light of Russia’s invasion. “Attacking a brother… nobody could believe it,” he said. “We thought [Putin] wanted to talk big to Biden, to Macron – we didn’t think he would invade.

His original cut had actually focused more on “the state, the military presence,” but after showing it to people, he realized he was more interested in “the people, the space, time.

Now Fedotow wished he had put more emphasis on the military. Or not. “I don’t know,” he said. “Art is art and should not change its identity. Corn …”

He and Korkia worry about family and friends in Moscow – a new law now makes reporting the war punishable by 15 years in prison – and in Ukraine. “We check the news every minute,” Fedotow said, “but we just lost our free press entirely. The last one closed yesterday.

None of the filmmakers know what war or boycotts will mean for these future films or projects. But, Korkia said, “It’s a small problem compared to what’s going on. Until Russian troops leave Ukraine, it doesn’t matter; That’s what matters.”

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