If culture begets art, and art knows no geographic boundaries, then what are we to make of boycotts?
Over the past week, calls have intensified to stop films from both coming into Russia (most major Hollywood studios are withholding their new releases, including Warner Bros.’ The Batman) and escaping the federation (the Ukrainian Film Academy is urging international festivals to ban Russian productions, a suggestion that the Glasgow Film Festival almost immediately took up, pulling two Russian titles from its lineup). I recognize the impulse, but aside from the moves being directly in opposition to the principles of art – the free expression and exchange of ideas, the importance of a multitude of voices and perspectives – such measures are tremendously short-sighted and irreparably damaging.
Perhaps robbing Russian citizens of the privilege of immediately watching Robert Pattinson beat up Colin Farrell isn’t the end of the world (unlike, well, the actual end of the world that’s being toggled back and forth) – though it certainly isn’t fair to an untold number of Russians who despise their leader. But banning Russian filmmakers and artists from the rest of the world? On that point, the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland currently puts it best: “We stand for freedom of expression and for the cinematographic art in all of its forms … [and we do] not intend to boycott Russian films, since cinema is a voice for supporting diversity and creativity in all countries.”
What has been left unsaid: If we turn our eyes away from Russian cinema, then we will only be left with Hollywood’s perspective of the world power. And that is not serving any audience, anywhere.
Think first of the films that were pumped out during the waning years of the Cold War: Red Scorpion, Red Dawn, Rocky IV, Rambo First Blood: Part II (maybe it was mostly Sylvester Stallone who had a thing for Russian bad guys). Now recall the films that have emerged since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, especially those made in the Putin era: Atomic Blonde, Red Sparrow, Black Widow, Salt, The Bourne Supremacy, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, A Good Day to Die Hard, Tenet, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, and more.
Some of those titles are set during the height of the USSR, some take place in a contemporary Russia under Putin’s eye. But all are eager to depict a country of hard-drinking, hard-living clichés at best, diseased and evil instincts at worst. There is no room for nuance – for separating leaders from people, regimes from reality – because nuance doesn’t exist when a great foe needs defeating. If not in real-world politics, then in the just-as-visceral politics of the screen.
Finding easy enemies abroad is of course nothing new for Hollywood – you don’t have to look far to find villains whose despicableness stems primarily from their sheer unfamiliarity: bad hombres from Mexico, pitiless terrorists from the Middle East, avaricious drug barons from South America, hermetic madmen from North Korea. (The one place where you won’t find them today? That would be China, whose massive domestic audience Hollywood is still courting, despite increasing evidence that Beijing no longer has the need or desire for Western films.)
Above any other place and people in modern Hollywood, though, Russia has consistently been Target No. 1. When you have the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the biggest movie machine that the world has ever seen, taking explicit action to depict Russia as a hotbed of supervillainy – even though the franchise has already established a perfectly suitable Russia substitute via the fictitious country of Sokovia – then you cannot ignore the intentionality of the industry.
It is curious, though, to see the efforts that filmmakers go to avoid name-checking Putin directly. The President’s dominion tends to be depicted in a trickle-down fashion, via proxy villains. There is Kenneth Branagh’s oligarch in Tenet (who rises, phoenix-style, from the ashes of radioactive fallout, and whose movie-long conquest for the world actually kicks off at the Kyiv opera house). Or Michael Nyqvist’s nuclear-minded madman in M:I – Ghost Protocol. Or Branagh (again!) as the tycoon holding his country’s future hostage in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. Even Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s riotous Team America: World Police, which impaled its marionette version of Kim Jong-il on a spike for easy chuckles, stayed clear of explicitly giving the middle finger to Putin.
Perhaps Putin himself is too real a villain. Or, more likely, there is a profitable laziness to be had from ensuring that audiences – especially in North America – don’t think too hard or too long about why they have been conditioned to cheer the fall of yet another vodka-swilling Russian mastermind.
There are of course exceptions to all this, albeit mostly on the small screen. FX’s The Americans strived to depict a layered view of Russian antiheroes (even if they had that most Russian of professions: spies). The French espionage series Le Bureau, streaming in Canada on Sundance Now, also took five seasons to delicately dissect Putin’s place in the contemporary geopolitical landscape, while also painting a decently shaded portrait of life inside everyday Russia (even for characters who didn’t work for the FSB).
But for genuine perspectives on Russia – as a people, as a place, as a source of art and creativity and simple humanity – the world is best served by the vantage point of storytellers who are actually inside the country, who push up against expectations and limits. Filmmakers like Boris Khlebnikov (Arrhythmia, Help Gone Mad), Aleksey German Jr. (Under Electric Clouds, House Arrest), and Andrey Zvyagintsev (The Return, Loveless and Leviathan, all essential works).
How can we hope to understand life inside a country by only looking at it from afar? We need our eyes wide open everywhere.
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