The film revolves around the arrival of a famous Belgian violinist to perform in Kiev. The date was February 2022, and his schedule was disrupted as Russia began bombing Ukraine. The musician, who survived a series of “inhuman crimes and bloody provocations by Ukrainian nationalists”, wants to tell the world “what it really is like”.
The state-sponsored TV series “Witnesses,” which premiered in Russia on Aug. 17, is the first feature film about the invasion 18 months ago. It paints the Ukrainian military as violent neo-Nazis who torture and kill their own people. One was even wearing a T-shirt with a picture of Hitler on it; another was doing drugs. The protagonist’s younger son also wonders: “Isn’t Ukraine Russia?”
This is the narrative the Kremlin has been promoting since day one of the war — all wrapped up in the film.
The release of “The Witness” comes after Russian authorities announced a plan to increase production of films glorifying Moscow’s actions in Ukraine, part of a growing slate of propaganda films.
But in an age of instant messaging and disinformation in wartime and beyond, two questions arise: Do propaganda films really work? Are they any good?
Whether a movie like this will appeal to audiences is the big question. Similar films have also been box office disasters. In addition, sociologists say public interest in the war has waned, and people today mainly want to escape the gloom and doom brought on by news about Ukraine.
“We often hear from our respondents that this is a great stress, a great pain,” said Denis Volkov, director of the Levada Center, Russia’s top independent pollster. Some Russians responded to the pressure by insisting that they “don’t discuss, don’t watch, don’t listen” to news about Ukraine, he said.
Putin orders theaters to show heroics of Russian fighters
Film is an important medium used by governments to shape patriotic messages – from the early days of the Soviet Union to its use by wartime Nazi Germany and Italy, and even by the United States during and after World War II. In more modern times, North Korea’s founder, Kim Il-sung, and his son and successor, Kim Jong-il, hosted regular productions of propaganda films.
State-sponsored promotional films have also met with varying degrees of success in the Middle East.For example, the Syrian civil war turned into a Ramadan TV Spotlight Soaps of the past decade, including some in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.Iran regularly funds films glorify hardliners and the paramilitary forces it supports across the region.
Fictitious propaganda is no accident in Russia today. Russian authorities have publicly stated their intention to bring the war in Ukraine — or rather, the Russian narrative surrounding it — to the big screen.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered the culture ministry to ensure that theaters show a documentary about a “special military operation” the Kremlin has dubbed the Ukraine War. The ministry also identifies priority themes when allocating national film funds. These include Ukraine’s “heroism and selflessness of Russian fighters” and “combat against modern manifestations of Nazi and fascist ideology” – Putin’s false accusation against the Kiev leader.
Russian filmmakers have access to more state funding than ever before this year: 30 billion rubles ($320 million) from two government agencies and a state-run nonprofit. It’s a key part of today’s industry, which has relied heavily on state funding for years.
Russian film critic Anton Dolin described it as “a vicious system when the state is the main and wealthiest producer in the country”. In an interview with The Associated Press, Doring pointed out that all films must obtain a permit from the Ministry of Culture for screening. Thus, the “censorship mechanism” works even for those who do not take money from the government.
Propaganda launched after the 2008 invasion of Georgia
That doesn’t mean state-funded Russian filmmakers always make propaganda films. There are also “very good movies,” said Yuri Saprykin, a critic and cultural expert.
In fact, some Oscar-nominated films from Russia received state funding, such as famed film director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan, which was released in Russia in 2015. It was later slammed by the culture ministry as an “anti-Russian” reality for its critical portrayal of Russia. There are also numerous other domestic hits: critically acclaimed historical dramas, sci-fi blockbusters, portrayals of legendary Soviet athletes.
Gregory Dolgopolov, a film and video production academic at the University of New South Wales, says that in general, the Russian film industry has only recently been “recognized as good, culturally global citizens, producing Excellent film, sometimes challenging the regime.”
After Russia’s brief war with Georgia in 2008, Russian state television aired a version of Moscow’s provocations against its neighbors. Its storyline is somewhat similar to The Witness: an American and his Russian friends witness the start of the war and embark on a mission to reveal the truth to the world, while Georgian security forces try to stop them.
After the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, it happened again — this time, the Kremlin story spilled over into cinemas.
The 2017 film “Crimea” justifies Moscow’s occupation of the peninsula and depicts a popular uprising in Kiev in 2014 that ousted Ukraine’s pro-Kremlin president as senseless violence behavior, Ukrainians brutally beat and killed their fellow citizens. It’s not just state-funded, it’s government-funded. Its creators say the idea came from Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
A year later, Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of the government-funded television network RT, created a romantic comedy about Crimea that focused on Putin’s favorite project: a bridge linking the peninsula to the mainland. bridge. It depicts the prosperity of Crimea under Russian rule.
Both films were promoted by state media but panned by independent critics for their thin plots and flat characters. Both ultimately flopped at the box office. Several other films about the conflict in eastern Ukraine, which Moscow fueled while blaming Kiev, were even less popular.
“Why would people go to an ad for a country they’re suffering from…especially when they have other options?” Doling wondered.
The alternative — Hollywood blockbusters — is always more successful, no matter how hard the Kremlin tries to stoke anti-Western sentiment. So much so that at some point Russian authorities began delaying the release of Hollywood blockbusters alongside domestic films they hoped to be successful.
Still, “any Spider-Man movie, any Marvel movie, any Star Wars movie, any American movie made a lot of money in Russia,” noted filmmaker Alexander Rodnyansky Ivan Philippov, creative director at AR Content, the production company behind the show, said.
The number of new films is expected to increase
In general, Russian industry has shown little interest in producing propaganda films about the Moscow-Ukraine conflict for years. Of the hundreds of films released each year in Russia, only about a dozen have been dedicated to the topic since 2014, Filippov noted.
He expects that number to grow, noting that in addition to The Witness, there are two other titles in the works. One of them, “Minutemen,” tells the story of a Moscow artist who decides to join a Kremlin-backed separatist rebel in eastern Ukraine, abandoning a life of bohemian life in the Russian capital.
Another film, Mission on the Ganges, follows Russian troops trying to rescue a group of Indian students stranded in a Ukrainian city as a “special military operation” unfolds in Moscow. The storyline said the city was controlled by “Ukrainian nationalists” who were “wreaking havoc” and trying to “hunt down” the students.
After the major Hollywood studios ceased operations in Russia last year, there were no Marvel titles to compete with, although some are still available in bootleg versions, and there are still certain European and low-key American titles available to watch.
But other Russian films have proven popular with moviegoers looking for positive emotions. The fairytale “Cheburashka,” featuring the iconic Soviet cartoon character, was released this year during the New Year holidays to great success. It cost 850 million rubles ($9 million) to make, but grossed nearly 7 billion rubles ($74 million).
According to Philippoff, no one in the industry could have imagined such gains. But filmmakers are following suit, remaking Soviet classics and turning to fairy tales. “The industry has come to a conclusion: Russians are desperate to distract themselves from their daily lives,” Filippov said. “They really don’t want to watch (movies) about war.”
As if in response to that sentiment, “The Witness” premiered in Russia with little fanfare and even little mention in state media. At a Moscow movie theater on a rainy Sunday afternoon last week, nearly a dozen moviegoers said they were there for something other than “The Witness,” though a few said they planned to see it at some point. movie. When the show started, there were only about 20 people in the 180-seat auditorium.
It made just over 6.7 million rubles, or about $70,000, in its first weekend.
That’s not entirely surprising if you ask Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a history professor at New York University who studies authoritarianism and propaganda.
“When dictators are on the defensive and wage war and it’s not going well, movies made to indoctrinate “usually don’t do very well,” she said.