How the Ukraine Film Industry Came to Cannes 2022 (Column)

Ukraine has been present at this year’s festival in ways that should inspire the global film industry — for business and humanitarian reasons alike.

Two months after Lithuanian filmmaker Mantas Kvedaravičius was murdered by Russian troops in Mariupol, Ukraine, his widow and co-director Hanna Bilobrova was at Cannes to screen the haunting and beautiful project they made together this year. The day before the premiere of “Mariupolis 2,” Bilobrova stood on a balcony watching the red carpet premiere for “Top Gun: Maverick” when the French air force sent its jets screaming across the skies and billowing smoke the color of the country’s flag. Having spent months in fear of those very sounds, Bilobrova shrunk to the ground on instinct and burst into tears.

“It’s a body memory,” she told me the next day, a few hours after the emotional premiere of her movie. “Life is dangerous. The headlines have statistics and bloody pictures. Nobody talks about what everyday life is like there.”

This year’s Cannes has been filled with contrasts between the celebratory festival environment and the tragedies of war. The official festival events have not ignored this unseemly blend: The opening ceremony included a rousing speech from President Volodmyr Zelensky and the Marché du Film hosted “Ukraine Day” with some 30 delegates from the country in attendance.

But the war has crept into the atmosphere of the event in other ways, some more exploitive than others. Around the Marché, one could find pins in jars with the word “Putin” crossed out. Across the street from my apartment, a pop-up store featured Ukrainian fashion brands. On the red carpet for the new George Miller movie “Three Thousand Years of Longing,” security hauled off a nude protestor from the French activist group SCUM, who was covered in the colors of the Ukrainian flag and the words “Stop Raping Us” written across her chest.

Even with these chaotic circumstances, Cannes has provided a template for how the festival environment can be leveraged to support humanitarian causes with genuine impact, both for the sake of Ukraine and beyond it. As this column explores new approaches to sustainability, this one may be the most pressing of all: Festivals and the businesses that fuel them have the potential to address fragile industries on the verge of collapse not only under extenuating circumstances, but as an ongoing raison d’être. And in the process of doing this for moral purposes, the investment has an upside in the unpredictable global film market.

In that regard, consider how the concept for “Ukraine Day” was pulled together by Ukrainian Marché staffer Aleksandra Zakharchenko, who heads programs and training for the market. While Zakharchenko left the country 10 years ago for Paris, most of her family remains in Kyiv.

“It was affecting me directly,” she told me when we sat down at the market a few days before the delegates from the country arrived. “So many films in post-production really need help. They don’t have any funds now. There are more and more Ukrainians who manage to work outside the country, but this is a big problem because we need to maintain the infrastructure to rebuild the community. I think that’s what the international industry has to focus on.”

The past decade has seen tremendous progress for the country as a younger generation of filmmakers have improved the quality of the local film industry. The two features from Ukrainian directors at the festival, “Butterfly Vision” and “Pamfir,” come from first-timers. The Ukrainian Film Institute poured money into local productions and festivals. This year, it worked with Cannes to bring delegates to the festival. Men are currently prohibited from leaving the country due to military duties, but a few managed to get an exception to the festival, including producer and distributor Denis Ivanov.

Some readers may recall him from a column I wrote a few weeks back as the war first broke out, when he spoke out against his former filmmaker peer Sergei Loznitza (who has an archival documentary at the festival this year) for supporting Russian filmmakers. At the time, Ivanov had recently taken his children to the border and returned to the area around Kyiv to find volunteer work. Now, he was shopping projects and attempting to acquire movies for the few arthouses still open in the country. I found him at the tail-end of a networking event for Ukrainian producers at the Plages du Palme, chain-smoking on a balcony a few feet from a fleet of yachts parked in the harbor.

Denis Ivanov

“It’s very strange to be here, but very important to think about what will come after the war,” he said. “We have to think strategically. Currently, the market is in its slowest point, but there’s a lot of will from Ukrainians to rebuild and get back to normal and to make it even more spectacular than it used to be.”

Ivanov said it took him three days to travel by Cannes, as he had to drive from Kyiv to Bucharest and take a plane to Nice from there. The road to his country’s border took him through a lot of dangerous terrain. “It was like ‘Mad Max,’” he said. He gestured to other Ukrainian producers standing nearby. “These are the best years of our lives,” he said, “and they’ve been taken from us. We want to restore that as quickly as we can.”

Ivanov estimated that around five percent of the pre-war market for theaters and distributors remained intact. “Currently the market is in its slowest point, but there’s a lot of will from Ukrainians to rebuild and get back to normal and to make it even more spectacular than it used to be,” he said.

Among the 550 theaters in the country, few remain open, though WarnerMedia released “The Batman” in the country last week, “which gave the signal that this is still an industry,” Ivanov said.

As a producer, he was at Cannes raising funds for two new projects from director Oleh Sentsov, who is currently fighting on the frontlines, one in financing stages and the other in development. “I want to prepare everything so when he’s back from the war we can shoot,” Ivanov said. The project in development, “Shining World,” had an English-language script that could help it break free from the constraints of the Ukrainian market.

Right now, while documentaries are ubiquitous, production on narrative features in Ukraine has become a virtual impossibility. Crews have scattered, while the national curfew and air raid sirens conflict with the logistics of production. “It’s very hard for most filmmakers,” he said.

Ivanov was also producing “Demons,” the new feature from Natalya Vorozhbit, whose “Bad Roads” was the country’s Oscar submission last year. I interviewed Vorozhbit over Zoom from a bomb shelter during the early days of the war in February, when Russian troops began their ominous march toward Kyiv, and she was mulling whether to flee the country. That has happened, and while “Demons” requires four more days of shooting, Ivanov said they were looking to complete the production in Poland or the Balkans. As a distributor, he was hoping to make an offer on “Mariupolis 2,” but lacked funds to make compelling offers. “We can’t pay huge MGs, but our colleagues are compromising on the conditions of deals,” he said. “It would be really great to have a film from here.”

And that movie in particular would be a good one for other buyers to consider, even if — or precisely because — the concept doesn’t sound obviously commercial. “Mariupolis 2” provides a stunning closeup look at locals in a city that has recently been claimed as Russian territory, and it’s filled with sobering moments of everyday life.

In one memorable scene, a man complains about the corruptive power of greed overtaking the planet, interrupting his monologue when he realizes some pasta cooking in the yard has too much butter. In another moment, the camera lingers on a dog trapped in a cage adjacent to a house that has been reduced to rubble; later, the filmmakers find some pigeons gathered on a metal roof that withstood the bombs. “We’ll have headlines of who won or lost but no perception of how people live under the war,” Bilobrova said. “We would tell people, ‘All the world is talking about you,’ and people would say, ‘What are you saying? Everyone left us.’”

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“Mariupolis 2” co-director Hanna Bilobrova

When Bilobrova lost track of her husband several weeks into their shoot, she spent five days checking Russian bases before discovering his body, which the invading soldiers released to her. “I believe that they did as a gesture to me,” she said, before changing the topic. She was still fuming from a report about her husband’s death in the New York Times, which included unsubstantiated reports that he died in a Mariupol hospital “with a camera in his hands;” he was executed in Russian custody, and Lithuania has launched an ongoing investigation. “He was killed in cold blood, not reporting from the field but helping people,” she said. “He was killed as a civilian.” That sort of testimony and the movie itself provide a reminder of the way cinema can offer a corrective to media narratives, and the festival environment provides an extension of that potential.

Down the street from the Palais des Festivals and a few feet from the red carpet, I stopped by the Ukrainian Pavilion and found Alla Prelovska, the international projects manager for Kyiv Media Week and other conferences, who was manning the tent. She pointed out that while the situation in Kyiv had stabilized, “we’re just 20 kilometers from Bucha,” where Russian troops have been executing citizens.

She added that Ukraine’s box office had seen plenty of successes in recent years, including the locally-produced “Crazy Wedding” franchise, with the third entry grossing $1.5 million domestically last year. But since February, “all the state’s budgets went to the war,” she said. “That was very understandable, but the industry was on the rise, and now we really don’t know.”

The films in selection reflect these assessments of a nascent industry. Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk’s “Pamfir” is the bracing look at a tough smuggler in rural town forced to return to his illegal ways, and the movie makes a remarkable transition from dreary family drama to “John Wick”-style fight sequences that suggest the genre-mashing potential of its young filmmaker. (If the “Fast and Furious” franchise needs some shaking up, here’s one name for the list.)

With “Butterfly Vision,” Maksym Nakonechnyi explores the experiences of young female soldier released from Russian custody in the Donbass region who learns that she’s pregnant after a solider raped her in prison. It’s a tough, engaging story that brings an uncompromising eye to the blend of grief and terror unique to wartime. These projects may or may not appeal to English-language distributors, but they should consider getting into business with the talent behind the camera.

Meanwhile, no Ukrainian films made it into Cannes’ Official Competition, unlike the Russian “Tchaikovsky’s Wife,” from Cannes regular Kirill Serebrennikov. While the director recently left his country after years of contending with a travel ban, he has faced backlash from the Ukrainian community for accepting funds from Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, the subject of sanctions and a person who by all indications probably shouldn’t have any presence at Cannes.

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“Pamfir”

After Serebrennikov defended Abramovich at a press conference and distanced himself from financing questions when I interviewed him later, some Ukrainians told me that I was letting him off too easily on this issue. It’s an understandable response, and while Cannes claims it would not allow Russian delegates at the festival, it seems to have maintained too flexible of a standard in this situation. At the very least, an out-of-competition slot may have been more appropriate.

This uncertainty was woven into the festival environment. Early in the festival, I dropped by an American Pavilion panel entitled “Canceling Russian Culture: Cinema as an Instrument of Propaganda and War,” in which panelists shared clips of Russian films that “that help brainwash and prepare the Russian population for military aggression against Ukraine,” as moderator Andrew Fesiak, the founder of Ukrainian production company F Films, put it. “They rewrote and sold Ukraine history to make it their own thus trying to deny Ukrainians their own history and therefore existence of their own history.”

In tracking these and other conversations, one key factor stood out: Cannes wasn’t simply showing solidarity with Ukraine; it was integrating Ukraine into Cannes so that the country could speak for itself. That required the complex resources of the Marché as well as the European Film Institute, which helped reimburse some of the Ukrainians in attendance and gain exceptions for the men to cross the border. For all these triumphant achievements, the considerable presence of Ukraine at Cannes raises broader questions about how festivals and the global industry as a whole can address humanitarian crises as an integral part of their existence.

Ukraine looms large at Cannes in part because for much of this predominantly white, European crowd, the crisis hits close to home, and it reverberates in the U.S. for the same reason (my maternal grandparents immigrated from Ukraine to Texas, of all places, in the early 20th century). Other recent national cinemas hit hard by wartime, with local film industries obliterated by their own enemies, haven’t been so lucky. There are no pavilions or daylong conferences for Afghanistan or Syria for obvious reasons, but these countries birthed talented filmmakers and other artists who don’t have the privilege of an industry that can be salvaged.

That’s where more work has to happen. As the first weekend of Cannes started, I dropped by a lunch hosted by France’s National Center of Cinema (aka the CNC), which finances much of Cannes and the rest of the French industry. The organization announced the launch of its inaugural “Camera Liberté” to support filmmakers living in exile. “This program aims to give them tools to pursue their approach in a framework that will preserve their creative freedom,” the CNC said in a statement. The program is expected to provide travel, living expenses, and writing residencies for six to seven filmmakers during an initial six-month timeline, with the potential to apply for an extension. Such an initiative stands out as a practical step toward addressing the need to support artists while integrating them into the global industry.

These strategies should infiltrate not only festival culture but also the commercial arena. Liberal Hollywood stars mean well when they wear ribbons supporting the migrant crisis on the red carpet (and hey, I’ve done it, too), but we’ve seen far less infrastructure dedicated to creating a pipeline for marginalized work from around the world. That kind of undertaking by studios and other major production entities shouldn’t happen just to make the benefactors feel good about themselves; it serves anyone with a business model that relies on the health of the global marketplace, and could even help restore distressed film markets that could add more money to overall equation.

So yes, festivals should consider how to adapt the Cannes approach and support Ukrainians by bringing them and their films into the lineup. However, this imperative is also an opportunity for the entire industry to salvage its growth potential while finding a whole new potential for impact that even governments can appreciate. The CNC shouldn’t be the only entity financing filmmakers in exile, and any festival with a market component must consider how it can incorporate such communities into its ecosystem. Today’s distributors often talk about the global market, but they’re leaving money on the table if they don’t support markets in trouble, or ignore talent escaping persecution. It’s time for fewer pins with slogans and more pocketbooks with purpose.

Given the sensitivities at play here, I encourage readers of this column to share their own solutions to how we might leverage existing industry resources to help these communities — and I’m being too idealistic, let’s talk it through: eric@indiewire.com

Browse earlier columns here.

For those at Cannes, find me here until the end of next week, or swing by IndieWire’s live recording of our Screen Talk podcast on Wednesday at 12:30 p.m.

Last week’s column proposing a new VOD serving to help festival films reach audiences elicited a lot of constructive feedback. As usual, I’m sharing a few choice observations below.

“Amazon Film Festival really dimmed way too soon before their discoveries could light up the film firmament.”
—Richard Lorber, president and CEO, Kino Lorber

“This nails it. I’ve been talking about this in a small think tank since the beginning of the pandemic. I was told by festival people that it would be too expensive and they are not streamers. I hope it will come true sooner than later. It is the obvious solution, for the reasons you explain. I’d definitely subscribe to such a platform, especially if it would have the loving curation of platforms like Kanopy or Criterion or MUBI, and as a filmmaker I’d definitely want to make my films available to that. And there is a solution to the geoblocking, too. Films can expand in territories once a film premieres in a festival of yet another country. Thanks for the great piece!”
—Christina Kallas, filmmaker, writer, and professor, via Facebook

“At some point MUBI is or was trying to become what you’re proposing. They certainly appear to be after films aggressively, particularly films that seem to gain buzz on the fest circuit (and other types of films too). In fact, they seemed to be after films even before they get on the (latter/later part of the) festival circuit, and then charge those festivals (exorbitant) screening fees.”
—Ritesh Mehta, freelance film consultant, via LinkedIn

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https://www.indiewire.com/2022/05/ukraine-film-industry-cannes-2022-1234727269/ How the Ukraine Film Industry Came to Cannes 2022 (Column)

Chris Estrada

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