If the state declares that patriotic films or films promoting ethnic harmony are what the nation needs now, there will be two or three such films made and that will be the end of it. The problem is that you cannot make people pay to see these films and movie theaters will lose money.
Valdaiclub.com interview with Viktor Yerofeyev, Prose writer, TV anchor, Philology Department, Moscow State University; Graduate course at the World Culture Institute, Moscow State University; Ph.D. thesis “Fyodor Dostoyevsky and the French Existentialism”
Why isn’t the Russian government more active in art, specifically cinema?
An active cultural policy on the part of the government is always a losing proposition if, of course, the government in question is not totalitarian. A totalitarian nation has a single ideology that governs everything, art and lifestyle included.
In Russia, a state with a mixed worldview, there are different elements. Under the existing system, controlling culture is hardly possible because there is no guiding national idea, and one is unlikely to be found any time soon. Ordering the direction art in Russia should take is a difficult proposition. The USSR, particularly under Stalin, had a clearly defined strategy in this regard. In present-day Russia, there is no clarity at all.
If the state declares that patriotic films or films promoting ethnic harmony are what the nation needs now, there will be two or three such films made and that will be the end of it. The problem is that you cannot make people pay to see these films and movie theaters will lose money. As a result, the government initiative devolves into a caricature and it becomes unclear what should be controlled and why.
This situation is characteristic of countries with a mixed ideology, and nothing will change for the better or worse. Ultimately, it’s the talent of filmmakers that counts.
Can government subsidies encourage the Russian cinema’s development, or does this money deprive it of its freedom?
Government support is natural. Not everything is based on the money of oligarchs. But the state in this case becomes a cow being milked every which way. The government is clever enough to know that it provides subsidies to film directors who are out to pull a fast one with the money, while persuading the donor that they are its most faithful servants. Filmmakers take the money to affirm their self-worth or in order to advertise themselves. The allocations are not always used as intended, with both sides engaging in deceit.
Subsidies can, of course, result in fine films, but the opposite is also true. For example, Nikita Mikhalkov’s latest films have gone from bad to worse. There is nothing wrong with public money being invested into filmmaking, but directors, for the most part, either botch the job, as is usually the case with ideological cinema, or they do whatever they want. In art, it’s talent that matters. Sergei Eisenstein was ready to argue with Stalin at the height of the terror. He always went his own way and convinced others by the force of his talent.
What is your attitude to ideology in cinema? Does this approach work in shaping an effective soft power policy?
The government is considering the possibility of making cinema conform to ideology. It wants a politically loyal cinema that extols the virtues of patriotism, kindness and humanism. But even the loyal directors are not glorifying the state. They speak about human nature and thus drift in the direction of real art.
As for the attempts to instill in viewers this or that state-approved value, this seems almost impossible. There should be a huge Hollywood-like industry for shaping human values, but we have no such industry: Russian cinema is scattered.
Will the state promote Russian cinema abroad?
It has been doing this all along, but Russian cinema is a misfit outside of Russia. Just a few films have made it onto the big screen abroad. We are mostly represented at film festivals. There are two reasons for this. First, we are excessively concentrated on our domestic problems and this makes films somewhat provincial. For example, the character of Ivan the Terrible, as depicted by Pavel Lungin (“The Tsar”), is of great importance for Russians, but the Americans see him as yet another Russian monarch falling short of a world symbol.
Second, Russian films mostly follow the lead of Hollywood productions, mimicking fashionable innovations. We have few discoveries of our own. The only exception is perhaps Alexander Sokurov, who has created his own cinematic language.
Our filmmakers are generally provincial, although Lungin worked in France. He is currently improving the international norms of cinema. Looking at what is going on one can say that the Russian cinema is a backyard and an untended vegetable patch.