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An ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine dating back to the collapse of the Soviet Union has become a full-out war with global — and commercial — reverberations. Russia’s booming film and TV industry, with its deep, government-backed coffers, lost its grip on the world stage virtually overnight amid growing fallout from Vladimir Putin’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine.
Disney, Warner Bros., Sony and Paramount all paused distribution of new movies in Russia, and “SNL” opened last weekend’s show with a Ukrainian chorus in solidarity with the country under attack. Cannes barred the Russian delegation from attending its May festival.
For Ukraine’s creative community, the situation is a matter of life-or-death. Though the Russian attack has met with fierce Ukrainian resistance, millions have been forced into makeshift shelters to escape bombings. The United Nations has so far recorded more than 100 deaths. On March 1, Russian bombs targeted a TV tower in Ukrainian capital Kyiv, killing at least five and blocking transmission of TV channels nationwide.
Film festival organizer and producer Darya Bassel, whose documentary “A House Made of Splinters” won a director’s prize at last month’s Sundance Film Festival, fled Kyiv days ago with her family, and is based in an apartment in the western town of Chernivtsi.
Bassel is among a group of filmmakers who have mobilized quickly to support those documenting Russia’s invasion of their country. The outfit has opened an office to organize the transport of means and materials to filmmakers on the front line.
“For some, it’s simple stuff like food or chocolate. For others, it is bulletproof vests, power banks and gasoline,” says Bassel. “We’re also trying to organize people who have cars to drive [filmmakers] from point A to point B.”
Several documentary projects are in the works. Actor-director Sean Penn was in Ukraine filming a Vice Studios documentary funded by Endeavor Content, and other efforts include a new film by “Ukraine on Fire” director Igor Lopatonok and two docs that began shooting when it became clear that Russia would invade.
Illia Svidler, a producer and the CEO of Ukrainian distributor Kinolife, was working on a film festival that was meant to launch in March when the war broke out.
“All the agreements with cinemas, theaters [and] partners were signed, but everything was canceled,” he says. He was also in talks with a Spanish company about a co-production, but “they don’t reply now,” he says.
Svidler spoke to Variety in between sheltering in the bathroom of his apartment with his wife and 8-month-old daughter as sirens sounded. He supports cultural boycotts of Russia: “I think it’s a good idea. Many films are sponsored by the Russian government.”
Europe is slowly adhering to calls by the Ukrainian Film Academy and other government bodies to sever business and creative ties with Russia.
Netflix has refused to carry 20 Russian free-to-air propaganda channels locally despite the requirements of a Russian law that went into effect March 1.
Meanwhile, French drama festival Series Mania booted Russian film advocacy org Roskino from its upcoming event. While Cannes has barred any Russian presence at its fest, the Venice Film Festival has yet to take a position. On March 1, the European Film Academy said it would exclude Russia from the European Film Awards.
Svidler points out that many in the Ukrainian film industry, including Kinolife, have already terminated contracts with Russian companies at great expense.
“We’ll lose [a lot of] money,” says Svidler. “But when I was sheltering with my little daughter and my wife, I didn’t think about money. I thought, ‘I don’t want to work with these bastards.’”
The war is yet another blow to the local film and TV industry, already battered by the pandemic. The country’s most prestigious film awards, the Golden Dzyga, set to take place in April, have been postponed until further notice. Casting calls have been canceled, and cinemas have been shuttered. The entertainment sector has effectively been frozen.
Meanwhile, those covering the war zone for international media orgs are doing their part to support Ukraine. Brygida Grysiak, deputy editor-in-chief of Discovery-owned Polish cable news channel TVN24, says the channel made the “important” move of livestreaming Ukrainian media groups’ “United News” program — a coordinated newscast created in a bid to quash fake news — on OTT platforms TVN24 GO and TVN Play.
“I would say it is our little sign of solidarity for [Ukrainian] journalists,” says Grysiak, who has on-the-ground teams stationed in Kyiv and Lviv in Ukraine, as well as Moscow.
Trey Yingst, a Fox News foreign correspondent, has been traveling around Ukraine for about two weeks, venturing near the Crimea, to the front lines in the eastern part of Ukraine and reporting from Kyiv.
“It’s of note how resilient the Ukrainian people are,” says Yingst. “They are the story. People have been asking us and commenting online and talking about correspondents like us standing on the balconies wearing flak jackets amid incoming bombing. We are not the story. The story is the Ukrainian people.”
Sky News chief correspondent Stuart Ramsay endured a 36-hour curfew in Kyiv over the weekend, a little too close to “strategic military roving” for comfort. The veteran reporter has a hint of surprise in his voice as he ruminates on the team’s short-term plans in the field.
“We didn’t think [the Ukrainian forces] were going to last very long, and I’m pretty certain Russia didn’t think they would last very long,” Ramsay says. “In terms of what was thought to be this blitzkrieg, it’s [been] a remarkable effort.”
Brian Steinberg and Jennifer Maas contributed to this story.