Restrictions on the art world are increasing in Russia. But the country's biggest documentary film festival remains defiant to government control — including by showing a controversial animated satire co-produced by DW.
Mafia-esque Italian music plays as Russian President Vladimir Putin strokes a cat and consults about how to get his falling political rating back up. Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko sings an operatic love song to woo both Putin and German Chancellor Merkel. Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov performs a musical routine insisting "it wasn't us," and that blaming Russia for anything is "Russophobia."
If these scenes sound surreal it's because they are part of an animated satire, titled Zapovednik and co-produced by Deutsche Welle. An hour-long version of the cartoon has aired at this year's Artdocfest in Moscow, Russia's biggest documentary festival which was held this year from December 5 - 12.
The show's team usually makes weekly 12-minute episodes for YouTube, where Zapovednik has over 400,000 subscribers. But they created a long version of the satire especially for the festival.
"This film and this funny way of presenting the material is cathartic, it allows you to let off steam — built-up anger or dissatisfaction with what is happening," says an older man in glasses after the screening. "It may be ironic, but it still reflects the reality of what is happening in our country. It's good that this sort of thing can be shown in Russia," another audience member tells DW.
The Artdocfest's president Vitaly Mansky insists on showing the festival's films in Russia despite restrictions
The right to laugh
According to the Artdocfest president, documentary filmmaker Vitaly Mansky, Zapovednik is a perfect fit for the festival. True, showing an animated movie is "an experimental step" for the documentary film festival, but Mansky argues that the satire show is relevant to the viewers because it is always based on real political events.
Mansky even insists that Zapovednik exemplifies the festival's philosophy. "The Artdocfest exists in order to implant freedom by force, so to speak. And I want to give the audience the right to laugh at the kings," Mansky says, referring to Russia's political elite. "If there can't be irony about politics in a country, that is a clear signal that there is no freedom."
The filmmaker admits that screening Zapovednik is a risk. After all, in Russia, even a one-man protester with a placard calling for Putin's resignation will almost certainly be arrested. But Mansky is willing to take the gamble. "If we are afraid of these risks then we certainly don't need to have this festival," he tells DW.
Artdocfest is known for being politically critical. The festival was founded in 2007 and focuses on Russian-language films. This year, the program included 167 films on a broad range of subjects, from Moscow's street dogs (Space Dogs) to the presentation of war trophies from Syria (Promoting Success).
Two years ago the Artdocfest organizers decided to carry out the competition section of the festival in Riga, Latvia instead of in Moscow. Mansky explains that the uncertainty created by holding the competition in Russia had simply become too great.
There are more and more restrictions on artistic freedom in Russia. Various broad laws including one on promoting extremism and one on offending the feelings of religious believers have been used to censor art that is critical of the government. In 2015, a Siberian production of the Wagner opera Tannhäuser was banned for "blasphemy." The experimental Teatr.doc theater company in Moscow has repeatedly had its work disrupted by authorities. This year, Russia screened a version of the Elton John biopic Rocketman that excluded gay sex scenes, because so-called "gay propaganda" is illegal in Russia. There is also a ban on swearing in films, television, theater and the media. Meanwhile, the Russian Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky has been pushing to support and screen more "patriotic films" in the country.
Artdocfest has been able to continue despite restrictions. After they screen in Riga in October, most of the films still come to Moscow for the December festival, with a selection of screenings also taking place in St. Petersburg. But this year, around 15 of the movies that were screened in Latvia will not be showing in Russia. In some cases the directors refused to travel to the country or have their films shown for political reasons. For example, the director of one film about Chechnya feared a Russian screening could lead to persecution for the people shown in the documentary.
But the festival is facing increasing control by the Russian Ministry of Culture. This year, the festival had to have its program approved in advance by the ministry for the first time. Artdocfest's president thinks that because the rulings are new, the festival they may have gotten away with showing more films this year than it will in the future.
After all, the Artdocfest is no stranger to criticism from the minister of culture himself. In 2014, Vladimir Medinsky said the government would not provide funding for the Artdocfest because the festival's director has made "anti-government statements."
Working against all odds
But Artdocfest's team seems prepared to remain defiant towards government control. Its president Vitaly Mansky hopes the festival's stance can even help foster Russia's civil society. "We are carrying out the Artdocfest against all odds. And that shows that you can oppose the current conditions [in Russia]. "
Mansky is determined to keep carrying out the festival in Russia as well as in Latvia, and to keep showing films that reflect Russian realities — including films that are critical of the government, like Zapovednik.
"I want to show every audience member here that real life exists and that their doubts about what is happening in Russia aren't just figments of their imagination. I want those people to meet and sit next to each other, shoulder to shoulder, so they can feel that they are not alone."