From ‘isolated’ Russia with love: Moscow festival unites filmmakers from the Global South and the West

May 12, 2024
Moscow skyline with Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed (Saint Basil's Cathedral) and Spasskaya Tower on Red Square, Russia. Image:iStock/Vladislav Zolotov

At one of the world’s oldest film festivals, 240 pictures from 50 countries were shown in Russia.

Last week the 46th Moscow International Film Festival (MIFF) concluded in Moscow. MIFF was first held in 1935 and is one of the oldest film festivals in the world. Over the years, its winners have included some of the world’s greatest filmmakers, such as Federico Fellini, Akira Kurosawa, Stanley Kramer, Norman Jewison, and Damiano Damiani. Of course, renowned Soviet and Russian movie directors – such as Sergey Bondarchuk, Sergey Gerasimov, Grigory Chukhray, Elem Klimov, and Alexey Uchitel – also received top prizes at the festival in various years.

MIFF in the USSR and Russia
In the USSR, MIFF played a particularly important cultural role in the 1960s and 70s, when access to foreign cinema was limited and modern film distribution platforms didn’t exist. Many of the films shown at MIFF were either released in select movie theaters or not shown in Russian cinemas at all, and some of those movies appeared on television only years later.

Moreover, some of the films shown at MIFF were censored by the USSR authorities, so for Soviet movie lovers the festival was the only opportunity to see films by Western directors like Stanley Kubrick or Lindsay Anderson. MIFF also offered an unprecedented chance to see the stars of world cinema face to face – including Gina Lollobrigida, Sophia Loren, Yves Montand, Toshiro Mifune, Richard Burton, Jean Marais, and many others.

It is difficult to appreciate just how important MIFF was back in those days, since today all movies are eventually released on online streaming platforms and people are able to watch just about anything (including all the movies screened at the film festival) without leaving their home.

After the fall of the Iron Curtain, MIFF became one of the world’s leading film festivals. But even before that, as soon as relations between the USSR and the US thawed, many Western filmmakers expressed great interest in attending MIFF. For example, Robert De Niro joined the jury in 1987, and Andrzej Wajda, Zhang Yimou, Emir Kusturica, and Jos Stelling did so in 1989. Quentin Tarantino, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, Sean Penn, Tim Burton, and many other stars of world cinema all attended MIFF in various years.

However, in the past two years the festival has encountered a major obstacle. After February 2022 (the start of Russia’s military operation in Ukraine), the International Federation of Film Producers Associations paused accreditation of MIFF for an indefinite period of time due to sanctions on Russia. Formally, MIFF was no longer included in the list of prestigious international film festivals, and the organizers had to “restructure” the event. The festival acquired a new status, and many problems had to be solved – especially when it came to logistics, visa processing, and the accreditation of foreign press. In 2022, the festival was held in September instead of April, but despite various challenges, it was not canceled.

MIFF 2024 winners
Despite Western sanctions that have affected Russia’s cultural life, the Moscow International Film Festival is still held annually. Even without international accreditation (which used to be considered an important bureaucratic condition) it remains one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world. It is noteworthy that out of the 11 films that participated in the event’s Main Competition, there was only one Russian film – Ivan Sosnin’s ‘The Alien’. Seven other Russian pictures were presented in the Russian Premiere competition.

This year, Icelandic director, screenwriter, and producer Fridrik Thor Fridriksson was selected as the chairman of the MIFF jury. The jury also included Russian actress Elena Lyadova, Serbian film director Radoš Bajić, Turkish filmmaker Hüseyin Karabey, Kazakhstani producer and director Gulnara Sarsenova, and Russian film director Igor Voloshin.

The festival’s top prize, the Golden St. George, was awarded to Mexican director Miguel Salgado for the film ‘Shame’. It tells the story of friends Pedro and Lucio, who were kidnapped and had to engage in a deadly battle with each other in order to survive. Juan Ramon Lopez, who played the role of Pedro, also won the Best Actor award.

Mareike Beykirch won the Best Actress prize for her role in the German drama ‘Schlamassel’. Iranian filmmaker Nahid Azizi Sedig received the Silver St.George award for the ‘Breath of Cold’, and a special jury prize was awarded to the Bangladeshi movie ‘Nirvana’. Notably, ‘Breath of Cold’ also won the Audience Prize, while ‘Shame’ was rated third best by the audience. ‘Breath of Cold’ is a complex family drama about a son who must decide whether he can forgive his father for committing murder. The complicated family relationships and desire for revenge which, however, cannot heal the son’s wounded heart, appealed to Russian viewers.

The Iranian movie ‘Facing the Rook’ won the award for Best Documentary. It’s about Iranian painter Ali Akbar Sadeghi, and the attempt to transfer his paintings into the realm of computer graphics. The Spanish picture ‘Partners’ won in the Best Short Film category, and a special prize for Contribution to Cinema was awarded to filmmaker Sergei Ursulyak, known for the TV series ‘Liquidation’ and ‘And Quiet Flows the Don’ and for the films ‘Russian Ragtime’ and ‘The Righteous’.

In line with tradition, the Russian Premiere competition attracted wide attention. This category presents new Russian films and in a way, exemplifies the state of Russian cinema. This year’s winner – ‘Liar’, starring young actress Elizaveta Ishchenko – gave rise to much discussion. It received mixed reviews and the jury’s decision caused a lot of debate.

Liar’ explores the theme of sexual harassment of women, but presents the issue from the other side. The film’s main character, Eva, is only 17 years old but is already bored with life – nothing interests her and she feels invisible. In an attempt to make life more thrilling, she accuses a singer who used to be popular of harassment and becomes a media star overnight.

The movie gave rise to heated discussions in the press. Its creators were accused of victim blaming and the MIFF jury was reprimanded for awarding the prize to such a controversial work. However, it is noteworthy that the movie was shot by an almost all-female film crew. It was directed by Yulia Trofimova; the script was written by Trofimova, Maria Shulgina and Ayelet Gundar-Goshen; Katerina Mikhailova, Tatyana Moiseeva, and Natalia Murashkina were the producers, and only the film’s post producer, Timur Beliy, was male.

Out-of-competition screenings
A total of about 240 films and TV series were shown at MIFF this year, and many of them were screened out of competition. Such films and series were organized into 14 thematic programs. Out-of-competition screenings included a new historical film by the renowned Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou; ‘Seconds’ – a sports biography from South Africa; ‘In the mist of the triads’ – a Spanish movie about kung fu in Barcelona, and animated films from Japan, France, Russia, and other countries.

TV series from all over the world were also shown at the festival. Of particular interest were ‘Prometheus’ – a Russian series about a missing passenger plane, starring Filipp Yankovsky; ‘Visitors’ – an Icelandic TV series about a man and a woman who suddenly switched bodies; and the Canadian series ‘Non-Kosher’ about the country’s Jewish community.

One of the most popular programs was ‘Wild Nights’, which showcased unusual and experimental films. Of particular interest were ‘Midnight with the Devil’ – an Australian retro horror starring David Dastmalchian; ‘The Damned’ – a short Spanish mystical thriller; ‘All You Need is Blood’ – a US zombie comedy; and a grotesque Japanese film about stalking titled ‘The Door’.

Festival results
Films from 50 countries were shown at the Moscow International Film Festival. In addition to pictures from ‘friendly countries’, movies and series from the US, Spain, Japan, France, and other nations that have imposed unprecedented sanctions on Russia were also screened at MIFF. This once again proves that culture and art are outside of politics. Of course, many films and TV series touch upon political themes and reflect the personal views of their creators, but politics should not interfere with film distribution. People with different views, values, and opinions have an equal right to be heard all over the world, and politics should have nothing to do with it. Viewers must have the chance to watch movies and TV series produced in any country, and should personally decide what they want to watch.

Republished from, 5 May

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