In the Land of the Unicorn

PHOTO by lucidwaters / Depositphotos
Russian Film Week draws to a close in London

Russian Film Week, held in London from Nov. 30 to Dec. 4, is one of the few Russian film festivals outside of Russia that has managed to avoid over-formality. A jury of internationally renowned film scholars, critics and industry professionals awarded the festival’s top prize, the Golden Unicorn, to “The Student,” directed by Kirill Serebrennikov.

The first-ever Russian Film Week held in London offered a programme of 25 films ranging from award-winning Russian blockbusters to short features, and it was attended by dozens of special guests, including the actress, director and screenwriter Renata Litvinova, pop singer Dima Bilan and international star Olga Kurilenko. Auxiliary events included meetings with directors and actors, business conferences and presentations. The films were shown to full auditoriums — all tickets to the screenings had sold out long before the festival’s opening ceremony. Despite the widespread belief that Russian films are of little interest to international viewers, this stereotype didn’t seem to be the case in Great Britain’s capital.

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“Apart from lovers of Russian culture, there are nearly 400 thousand Russians permanently residing in London,” said Vadim Lobov, co-founder of the event and the executive director of Synergy University. “For them, Russian Film Week is a great opportunity to enjoy and take pride in their native country. The films we selected for the festival represent a mix of genres and plots: the comedy ‘The Good Boy,’ several historical films like ‘Territory’ and ‘Hero’... Most importantly, however, the movies had to be relevant, send an important message to viewers and be technically superior. The festival’s programme also contained international productions shot on location in Russia, such as ‘Moscow Never Sleeps’ by the Irish director Johnny O’Reilly, which shows the Russian capital in a very positive light.”

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It is hardly a secret that Russian film festivals frequently end up being overly formal and soulless. To avoid this pitfall, Russian Film Week formed an illustrious international awards committee, which featured journalist and writer Andrew Jack, author of the book “Inside Putin’s Russia”; professor of literature David MacFadyen, who has spent many years writing about Russian culture; Elliot Grove, a Canadian producer and founder of the Raindance Festival; actresses Justine Waddell and Dina Korzun; and a number of other experts.

Kirill Serebrennikov’s “The Student,” a Cannes Film Festival selection that was the most acclaimed and most debated Russian film of the year, walked away with the Golden Unicorn for best film and for best actor for Piotr Skvortsov. Anna Melikyan’s romantic almanac “About Love,” the winner of the 2015 Sochi Festival, won prizes for best screenplay and for best actress for Renata Litvinova, whose visit to London imparted some bohemian chic to RFW. Litvinova conducted a master class and presented two of her new short films as well.

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Another highlight was the discussion with director Aleksey Uchitel, who introduced his London audience to mechanisms involved in Russian filmmaking and talked about his current work on the widely publicised historical drama “Matilde.” Other guests of the festival included Anna Melikyan, actor Semen Treskunov, director Sergey Snezhkin, Oleg Asadullin, Alexander Melnik, Ilya Uchitel аnd Verа Glаgolevа. British actor Rаlph Fiennes, who played the male lead in “Two Women,” was awarded a special prize for the Promotion of Russian Culture, although the actor was unable to attend the awards ceremony in person.

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Despite the fascinating programme, Russian Film Week did not only limit itself to screenings of Russian movies to a London audience, as the festival’s founder and general producer Philip Perkona pointed out. The cross-cultural mission adopted by Russian Film Week in the current geopolitical context was nowhere as evident as in RFW’s extensive business programme. The festival’s agenda featured presentations of new projects as well as numerous discussions between Russian and British producers on the possibilities, prospects and challenges of co-production — a funding mechanism regarded as the most effective by filmmakers outside of Hollywood. However, much more effort is needed to make joint projects possible, and as of yet, British producers confess, Russia’s laws and tax system regarding the film industry are nearly impenetrable for foreigners.

Author: Denis Ruzaev