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Cannes Film Festival takes heat for inclusion of Russian film

Director Agnieszka Holland, president of the European Film Academy, has criticized the Cannes Film Festival for including a Russian entry in this year’s main competition. “Tchaikovsky’s Wife,” which screened Wednesday and is one of 21 films in contention for the Palme d’Or, was directed by Kirill Serebrennikov and financed by the controversial Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, in addition to Swiss and French investors.

“If it were up to me, I would not include Russian films in the official program of the festival — even if Kirill Serebrennikov is such a talented artist,” said Holland. The 73-year-old filmmaker, whose 1990 Holocaust drama “Europa Europa” was nominated for an Oscar, was speaking at a roundtable event in support of Ukrainian filmmakers, as reported by Variety.

In a phone interview with The Washington Post from Cannes, Holland elaborated on her position. “It doesn’t mean that I want to cancel Russian culture altogether,” she said. “I think it’s just not the right time to go on the red carpets and celebrate films that are made in Russia with Russian money.”

While some defend Serebrennikov, calling him a dissident artist, Holland said it isn’t that simple, at least not for an artist partially funded by an oligarch. “It is very difficult to make a distinction and say, ‘That is a good Russian, that is a bad Russian,’ because movies are made by money and money is not as noble as you’d like.”

Holland’s remarks are a part of an ongoing debate about sanctions against Russia, and come after other cultural institutions have canceled appearances by Russian artists. On Tuesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke via video call during the festival’s opening ceremony. On Friday, a woman ran onto the red carpet to protest Russian war crimes, with the message “Stop raping us” written on her naked chest, over blue and yellow body paint. And another film on view at Cannes, Sergei Loznitsa’s “The Natural History of Destruction” is stirring controversy because its Ukrainian director was expelled from the Ukrainian Film Academy for not supporting a boycott of all Russian films.

In response to the war, Cannes barred an official delegation from Russia from attending the festival. But they did invite Serebrennikov, who has publicly spoken out against the war in Ukraine, Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea and the Russian government’s attack on LGBTQ rights, and who recently resettled in Germany. Following the premiere of “Tchaikovsky’s Wife,” Serebrennikov said, “No to the war,” and called for an end to the cultural boycott against Russian artists, adding that, “Culture is air. It is water and it is clouds, and so is totally independent of nationality.”

Serebrennikov also spoke in defense of the 55-year-old Abramovich, who owns the Chelsea Football Club and has appeared at peace negotiations between Russia and Ukraine. Although Abramovich has denied having financial ties to Putin, the British government has placed sanctions on him, citing financial benefits he’s received from the Russian government and his “close relationship” to Putin “for decades.” “We have to lift the sanctions against Abramovich,” Serebrennikov said. “He has been a real patron of the arts, and in Russia this has always been appreciated.”

Holland expressed disappointment with Serebrennikov in Cannes. “Unfortunately my bad feelings were confirmed by his words,” she said at the roundtable event, emphasizing that he attempted to equate the pain of Russian soldiers with that of Ukrainian defenders. “I would not give him such a chance at this very moment.”

Festival organizers have defended their decision to include “Tchaikovksy’s Wife,” noting that its plot, which explores the composer’s marriage and homosexuality — something the Russian government has long tried to hide — runs counter to Russian state narratives. They also noted that the film was made before the Russian invasion, though members of the Ukrainian delegation at Cannes have pushed back, arguing that filming may have extended into the spring.

Holland, who presides over the European Film Academy — which recently banned all Russian films from the European Film Awards — took a wider view, saying that all Russian cultural output, even 18th-century classics, needs to be reevaluated in the wake of what she called “Russian imperialistic aggression.”

Holland has her own history with Russia. Born in 1948 Poland, at the dawn of Communist rule, she spent time in prison for her involvement in the Prague Spring protests of 1968, which were ultimately quashed by Soviet forces. She subsequently fled Poland for France in 1981. Her film “Mr. Jones,” released on demand in 2020, was based on the true story of a Welsh journalist who uncovers Joseph Stalin’s intentional starvation of Ukraine in the 1930s, known as the Holodomor.

The Cannes Film Festival, which runs through May 28, includes the premiere of “Mariupolis 2,” a documentary by Lithuanian filmmaker Mantas Kvedaravicius, who was killed by Russian soldiers while filming in the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol. On Saturday at the festival, the entire day was dedicated to Ukrainian film.

For Holland, current circumstances in Europe have created a strange atmosphere at Cannes. “We have the speech from Zelensky, and after we have some funny movie about killing zombies,” Holland told The Post. “In my jury, there is a young Ukrainian woman director whose husband is in the army. And she is here, but all the time she is on her phone trying to figure out if he is alive.

“It’s everything mixed together. It’s very strange, very surreal.”

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