The Film Industry’s Support of Ukraine

By Gilbert Galvan  | 

The world responded swiftly following Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on February 24. Numerous countries imposed economic sanctions, global leaders issued a collective call for peace and the international film industry mobilized in unprecedented ways to condemn Putin’s violence while supporting Ukrainian civilians and initiatives. Here’s a look at some of those actions.

Calls from the Ukrainian Film Community
One day after Russian troops crossed the border into Ukraine and began their march toward Kyiv, a group of well-known Ukrainian filmmakers including directors Oleh Sentsov, Valentyn Vasyanovych, Iryna Tsilyk and others circulated an open letter to the world warning about the threat posed to other democracies while pleading for aid. “We’ve talked about the war in eastern Ukraine in our films for eight years,” they wrote. “You watched them at the festivals. But this is not a film, but our reality. And today this reality has spread throughout our country without exception.” Along with applying sanctions, the cinematographers asked members of the international community to speak out, spreading truthful and verifiable reports about the horrors being witnessed on the ground. “We also need information support,” said Tsilyk. “It is important to understand that Putin built a kingdom of false mirrors where white is called black and vice versa.”

The Ukrainian Film Academy, an organization comprised of industry professionals and cultural leaders around the country, likewise issued a petition for the international boycott of all Russian cinema. Some of the proposed actions included suspending Russian films from festivals and asking global producers to cease doing business with Russia so as not to contribute taxes to that country’s government. “Several films made by Russia are regularly admitted to the programs of most world film festivals, and significant resources are spent on their promotion,” wrote Ukrainian Film Academy members. “The result of this activity is not only the spread of propaganda messages and distorted facts. It also boosts the loyalty of Russian culture…which unleashed unjustified and unprovoked war in central Europe.”

International Industry Response
Cultural institutions around the world rallied in response to Ukrainian calls, pledging support and complying with many of the issued requests. France’s Cannes Film Festival said it would no longer “welcome official Russian delegations,” while the Venice Film Festival refused acceptance to all “persons tied in any capacity to the Russian government.” The Stockholm Film Festival and Glasgow Film Festival pulled several Russian titles from their programs. Smaller organizations, like Estonia’s Black Nights Film Festival and Lithuania’s Vilnius International Film Festival, went one step further by dropping all Russian entries. The Berlin International Film Festival also stood up in vocal Ukrainian support. Stateside, Disney, Warner Bros. and Sony Pictures announced the immediate end of theatrical releases in Russia, including international blockbusters like The Batman and Morbius. And while Iran’s government may be pro-Russia, prominent members of that country’s film community spoke bravely from Tehran in protest of the invasion.

Individual members of the entertainment industry also responded with acts of courage and solidarity. Oscar-winning actor, director and activist Sean Penn was in Kyiv filming a documentary about Russia’s invasion when the war started. He was praised by the Office of the President for coming to “record all the events that are currently happening in Ukraine and to tell the world the truth about Russia’s invasion of our country.” As fighting around the capital intensified, Penn shared on Twitter that he “walked miles to the Polish border” to reach safety, then gave a raw CNN interview describing actions taken: “We’re distributing hygiene kits. We’re giving cash assistance and water to refugees as they come through…You really have two kinds of struggles with the refugees. One is trying to get out of the country, and the other figuring out what to do.”

Other people supporting evacuation efforts include Danish producer Monica Hellstrom, who worked on The Distant Barking of Dogs, a Ukrainian documentary that was shortlisted for a 2019 Academy Award in the Documentary Feature category. She helped some subjects from that documentary—including protagonists Oleg Afanasyev and his grandmother, Alexandra—escape the village of Hnutove in the Donestsk region, which recently came under heavy Russian fire. Filmmaker Simon Lereng Wilmont, whose documentary about a children’s shelter in eastern Ukraine (A House Made of Splinters) earned a best director award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, helped kids featured in that production flee to safety.

Dissension in Russia
Among the many heartbreaking aspects of this war is the fact that it’s the act of a few bureaucrats who tightly control Russia’s government. In Moscow and other cities, thousands of protestors have lined the streets in outrage since the start of the invasion, despite ongoing threats of arrest and violence that now include troops opening fire on their own peacefully demonstrating people. “Hundreds and thousands of Russian culture workers have openly disagreed with the government’s decision to start a war: They condemn its actions, go to protests, support Ukraine, risk being sentenced for treason,” said one producer. “Almost all of them didn’t vote for Putin.”

A Russian woman named Marina Ovsyannikova, who burst onto a live TV news broadcast with a sign telling viewers they’re being lied to and that Russians are against the war, was arrested and now faces charges. Despite that, she refused to retract her statements while in court. Other journalists quit various news outlets, almost all of which are now state-controlled. “During these past years, our government tried to strangle independent media,” said a former correspondent, while another described the general population as having been “zombified” by censorship and propaganda. At Extreme Reach, our hearts and thoughts go out to the courageous people impacted by this terrible conflict. Read about our efforts to support Ukraine here.

Gilbert Galvan
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