If Vladimir Putin keeps an enemies list, then there is a good chance that filmmaker Victor Ginzburg’s name is near the top.
The Moscow-born director, who emigrated to New York City as a teenager but regularly returns to his home country to work, has made a career of sharply dissecting Russian culture from the inside. Witness his 1993 documentary Restless Garden, chronicling the sexual revolution that accompanied the fall of the Soviet Empire. Or the fantastically wild 2011 advertising-industry satire Generation P, adapted from the novel by postmodern sci-fi author Victor Pelevin. But it is Ginzburg’s latest film, the horror-comedy Empire V, that has earned the distinction of being officially banned by Russia’s Ministry of Culture – and has paradoxically been ignored by international film festivals in a bid to distance themselves from Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
But this Saturday, the vampire movie that Russia doesn’t want its people – or anyone, really – to watch will finally see the light of day with a world premiere at the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal.
Adapted from another Pelevin novel, Ginzburg’s Empire V traces the rise of a disaffected Moscow journalism student named Roman (Pavel Tabakov) who finds himself transformed into a vampire. But it turns out that bloodsuckers aren’t the nocturnal monsters we’ve traditionally imagined, but rather a ruling class of predatory power brokers who have spent centuries controlling mankind from the shadows. Combining the secret-society arcana of the John Wick films with the gonzo nightmare action of Timur Bekmambetov’s Night Watch films, Empire V is a sharp and head-spinning satire of conformity, privilege, and the Russian oligarchy.
Which is partly why, just a few days after it was set to premiere on 1,800 Russian screens in March, 2022, the country’s Ministry of Culture quashed the film’s release. The official reason was that the movie’s producers applied for the wrong age classification. But the film’s slyly subversive content – along with the vocal anti-war views of one of its stars (Miron Fedorov, also known as the hip-hop artist Oxxxymiron, who has been condemned by Moscow as a “foreign agent”) – appears to be the real reason driving the suppression.
“I think Oxxxy was the excuse that they needed to crack down on us, otherwise it would been very difficult to outright censor the film because it is a satire that is quite subtle in many ways,” Ginzburg says in an interview from his home in New York. “He’s the enemy now, and a very convenient excuse.”
Not that Ginzburg himself shies away from sharing his views on the war. “It’s absolutely horrible, any human being would recognize that,” he says. “I’m not a public figure in Russia. I think that I express myself best through the ideas in my films.”
While Ginzburg might have anticipated problems releasing Empire V inside Russia, it was an another challenge altogether to screen the film outside the country once the war began in February, 2022. Suddenly, film festivals around the world closed their gates to Russian cinema – sometimes making exceptions if productions weren’t state-financed, but oftentimes ignoring anything made inside the country.
“We applied to a number of major festivals, and I definitely felt the ‘cancel Russian culture’ pattern – just the fact that the film was in the Russian language was already a negative,” Ginzburg says. “But there’s a difference between films that are critical and constructive and films that are typical Russian propaganda fare, because they do make a lot of that stupid, in-your-face stuff.”
One problem facing Russian filmmakers of any stripe is that it can be challenging to make a movie inside the country without the support of the state. And after the invasion of Ukraine, almost no global film industry players outside of Russia want to be seen as helping potential revenues flow back into Putin’s coffers.
Although Empire V was initially awarded about $1-million in development grants from Fond Kino, Russia’s main funding body for cinema, the film’s producers eventually returned the money after being sued by the state agency over the production’s COVID-sparked work stoppage.
“Every other production had stopped working, but we were singled out and sued,” Ginzburg says. “But one of my investors paid them back, which feels great.”
Production on the $8.5-million movie – which looks like it cost about three times that price with all its extravagant CGI sequences – continued thanks to crowdfunding, private investment and a cryptocurrency blockchain offering entitling buyers to dividend payments on eventual revenue. (“Since this is a movie about what money means to humanity, I thought it made the perfect crypto movie,” says Ginzburg.)
“There absolutely was a debate about programming the film, but we looked at it carefully,” says Mitch Davis, Fantasia’s artistic director. “It’s being handled by a French sales company, Victor is working mostly from the U.S. now, it started with Russian funding but switched over to blockchain, and is very firmly not endorsed by the government. This is a film that is at once next-level blockbuster storytelling and megabudget genre protest art.”
Davis also noted that Fantasia is hosting a Ukrainian film, too, the thriller Stay Online, which takes place and was shot during the initial wave of the Russian invasion.
While Empire V is set to be distributed by Sony Pictures in territories of the former Soviet Union, including Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, Ginzburg hopes that the Montreal premiere will drum up interest for North American and European releases. And, perhaps, help the production one day reach Russian audiences. In the meantime, the director – who is now planning a third Pelevin adaptation, based on the 2011 novel Snuff, which predicted a Russian takeover of Ukraine – is wary of Russian cinema’s future.
“Will independent films still be made in Russia? I think so. Will they be released in Russia? I don’t think so,” says Ginzburg. “It will become more of an underground concept.”
Empire V screens July 29 at 9:45 p.m. as part of Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival (fantasiafilmfestival.com).