The devastating physical and psychological toll of war in Ukraine was laid bare on Wednesday in Maksym Nakonechny’s “Butterfly Vision”, the latest work to focus on Ukraine’s plight at the Cannes Film Festival, where talk of war and calls for a boycott of all things Russian have dominated discussions from day one.
The world’s glitziest film festival is sometimes portrayed as a bubble – and to some extent, that is true. One could easily have spent a week on the Croisette without noticing that the host country has a whole new government, and only the second woman prime minister in its history.
But there has been no escaping the catastrophic war raging at the other end of Europe, roughly 2,000 kilometres to the east of the French Riviera.
The festival opened last week with an emotional appeal by Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, who urged filmmakers to take up the mantle of Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” and “demonstrate that the cinema of our time is not silent”. Days later, a woman stormed a red carpet premiere, stripping off her clothes to reveal the words “Stop raping us” written across her torso, on top of the blue and yellow colours of the Ukraine flag.
Films by and about Ukrainians have featured prominently in this year’s line-up, directed by artists who spent the past decade chronicling war in the former Soviet bloc and warning the world about the threat of escalation. Among them was Lithuania’s Mantas Kvedaravičius, who paid with his own life for his efforts to document those of Ukrainian civilians in a time of war.
An extraordinary feat, his documentary “Mariupolis 2” brought a real-life, real-time chronicle of a devastating war being fought right now. The director’s tragic disappearance gave added urgency to the screening – an emotional highlight for a festival that has unfolded in the shadow of war.
That war was once again in the spotlight on Wednesday with the premiere of Maksym Nakonechny’s “Butterfly Vision”, about the ordeal suffered by a Ukrainian female soldier captured by pro-Russian separatists in the eastern Donbas. Pausing outside the Palais des Festivals ahead of the screening, the film’s crew held up a banner reading, “Sensitive Content: Russians kill Ukrainians. Do you find it offensive and disturbing to talk about this genocide?”
“Our very existence has become a target of genocide; our people, our language, our culture,” Nakonechny told the audience in a brief address that referenced Cannes’ origins on the eve of World War II. “The festival was launched back then as a response to censorship, bringing a voice to truth and art,” he added.
The contrast between such films and Cannes’ more frivolous, celebrity-crazed side has been head-spinning at times.
Early on in the festival, eyebrows were raised when French jets made two thunderous fly-pasts to honour Tom Cruise’s “Top Gun” comeback, prompting at least one Ukrainian delegate to duck under her table for shelter. But such is the paradox of Cannes: the gravitas and the revelling, the weighty topics and the frivolous ones. Without the Hollywood starpower, Cannes would go largely unnoticed, and Zelensky would not have had such a platform for the opener.
At the Ukrainian pavilion located outside the Palais, filmmaker Nika Shova said she cried on the opening night when Zelensky appeared on screen at the Grand Théâtre Lumière. She was grateful for the “heartwarming” welcome received in Cannes.
“Our pavilion was like a home. Lots of people dropped by to express support and ask whether they could help in some way,” she said. Like many other Ukrainians in Cannes, however, Shova was distinctly less impressed with the festival’s decision to invite Russian filmmaker Kirill Serebrennikov to take part in the race for the Palme d’Or.
“Serebrennikov did not support Ukraine,” she said. “Did he come to our stand? Did he pose for a photograph with us? No, he didn’t even come to say hello.”
Mirroring steps taken elsewhere, Cannes organisers barred Russians with ties to the government from the festival. But they resisted calls for a blanket boycott of Russian artists, welcoming Serebrennikov into the main competition for a third time. After twice running in absentia due to Moscow’s travel bans, he finally walked the red carpet earlier on in the festival for his latest feature, “Tchaikovsky’s wife”.
Not everyone agreed with his inclusion. Although Serebrennikov has vehemently condemned the war and gone into exile, many in the Ukrainian film world have argued that his past ties to Russian state-funded institutions and funding from oligarch Roman Abramovich mean he should have been excluded this year.
During the festival, Serebrennikov’s comments defending Abramovich as a “patron of the arts” drew particular ire.
“We feel strongly that anything and everything Russian must be cancelled,” Andrew Fesiak, founder of Ukrainian production firm F Films, told a panel discussion in Cannes last week. There is no such thing as “good Russians” at the current time, added the head of the Kyiv International Film Festival, Andriy Khalpakhchi.
The Polish head of the European Film Academy, Agnieszka Holland, also criticised the festival for welcoming Serebrennikov. She argued that standing up to Russian aggression in Ukraine required a total ban on Russian cultural products in Europe.
“If it were up to me, I would not include Russian films in the official programme of the festival – even if Kirill Serebrennikov is such a talented artist,” Holland, who fled to France in 1981 when martial law was imposed in her home country, told a Cannes roundtable on supporting the Ukrainian film industry. She added: “Unfortunately my bad feelings were confirmed by his words. He used [the film’s festival press conference] to praise a Russian oligarch [Abramovich] and compare the tragedy of Russian soldiers to Ukrainian defenders. I would not give him such a chance at this very moment.”
Serebrennikov himself has expressed understanding for the anger voiced by Ukrainians in Cannes. But he has also criticised talk of Russian boycotts, arguing that artists who challenge the Kremlin should be separated from the “paranoid ideology” of the Putin regime.
“It’s important for the festival to make a statement, to say it is not from what is happening today in Europe, this terrible, bloody war,” the Russian director told FRANCE 24 earlier in the festival, though adding that dissident artists should be supported. “We are fighting for Russian culture, real Russian culture, not propaganda,” he said.
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The decision to invite the likes of Serebrennikov has found at least one supporting voice among the Ukrainian directors here in Cannes. Sergei Loznitsa, a festival stalwart and the country’s best-known director, has differed from his fellow Ukrainians in rejecting the idea of a blanket boycott. Instead, he described festival organisers’ stance as “absolutely appropriate” in an interview with FRANCE 24.
“Any official delegation representing the Russian Federation represents a fascist state,” said the veteran director, whose latest documentary, “The Natural History of Destruction”, premiered on Wednesday. “Yet I do not agree with excluding those Russian authors, filmmakers and artists who are against this war, who just like the rest of the civilised world are trying to fight against this evil.”