The movie centers around a renowned violinist from Belgium arriving in Kyiv to perform. The date is February 2022, and his trip is upended as Russia starts bombing Ukraine. The musician survives a series of “inhuman crimes and bloody provocations by Ukrainian nationalists,” and he wants to tell the world “what it was really like.”
The Witness—a state-sponsored drama that premiered in Russia on 17 August—is the first feature film about the 18-month-old invasion. It depicts Ukrainian troops as violent neo-Nazis who torture and kill their own people. One even wears a T-shirt with Hitler on it; another is shown doing drugs. It also has the main character’s young son wondering: “Isn’t Ukraine Russia?”
It's the narrative the Kremlin has been promoting since the first days of the war — all packaged up in a motion picture. The release of The Witness comes after Russian authorities announced a plan to boost production of movies glorifying Moscow’s actions in Ukraine and is part of a growing number of propaganda films.
But in an era of instantaneous information and disinformation in wartime and other times, two questions present themselves: Are propaganda films actually effective? And are they any good?
Whether such films will attract viewers is a big question. Similar movies have been box-office disasters. Plus, sociologists say the public interest in following the war has waned, and people these days mainly want to escape from the gloom and doom of news from Ukraine.
“We regularly hear (from respondents) that it’s a huge stress, a huge pain,” says Denis Volkov, director of the Levada Center, Russia's top independent pollster. Some Russians, he says, insist they “don’t discuss, don’t watch, don’t listen” to the news about Ukraine in an effort to cope with that stress.
Film is an important medium that governments have used to shape patriotic messages — from the early days of the Soviet Union to wartime use by Nazi Germany and Italy, and even by the United States during and immediately after World War II. In more modern times, North Korea founder Kim Il Sung and his son and successor, Kim Jong Il, presided over a regular output of propaganda movies.
In today's Russia, propaganda as fiction isn't a haphazard effort. Russian authorities speak openly about their intention to bring the Ukraine war—or, rather, the Russian narrative around it—to the big screen.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered the Culture Ministry to ensure theaters screen documentaries about the “special military operation,” as the Kremlin calls its war in Ukraine. The ministry also has prioritised themes when allocating state funding for films. These include “heroism and selflessness of Russian warriors” in Ukraine and “battling modern manifestations of the Nazi and fascist ideology”—a false accusation Putin makes about Kyiv’s leaders.
The state funding that makers of Russian films can tap into this year is more than ever: 30 billion rubles (about $320 million) offered by two government bodies and a state-run nonprofit. That's a pivotal part of today's industry, which has been heavily dependent on state funding for years.
Also read: Waltzing with ghosts: Scorsese and The Band
Russian film critic Anton Dolin describes it as a “vicious system when the state is the main and richest producer in the country.” In an interview with The Associated Press, Dolin notes that all films have to get a screening license from the Culture Ministry. So “censorship mechanisms” work even for those who don't take money from the government.
That doesn’t mean that Russian filmmakers who get state funding always produce propaganda. There is also “very decent cinema” out there, says critic and culture expert Yuri Saprykin.
Indeed, some Oscar nominees from Russia received state funding—for example, Leviathan by renowned film director Andrey Zvyagintsev, which was released in 2015 in Russia and later slammed by the Culture Ministry as “anti-Russian” for its critical depiction of Russian reality. And there were other numerous domestic hits: widely watched historical dramas, sci-fi blockbusters, portrayals of legendary Soviet athletes.
Generally, Russia’s film industry until recently was “considered a good, culturally global citizen, producing good films, sometimes challenging the regime,” says Gregory Dolgopolov, film and video production scholar at the University of New South Wales.
Overall, the Russian industry over the years expressed little interest in making propaganda films about Moscow’s conflict in Ukraine. Of hundreds of movies released in Russia every year, only about a dozen since 2014 have been dedicated to this topic. This number is expected to grow, with two in the works in addition to The Witness. One, The Militiaman, follows a Moscow artist who decides to join the Kremlin-backed separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine, abandoning his bohemian life in the Russian capital.
Another, Mission ‘Ganges’, is about Russian troops trying to save a group of Indian students trapped in a Ukrainian city as Moscow’s “special military operation” unfolds. The city, the storyline says, is held by “Ukrainian nationalists,” who “wreak havoc” and are trying to “hunt down” the students.
After major Hollywood studios halted their business in Russia last year, there are no Marvel movies to compete with these, though some movies still trickle through in the form of pirated copies and there are still certain European and lower-profile American movies available.
But other Russian films out there are proving popular among moviegoers seeking positive emotions. Cheburashka, a fairy tale featuring the iconic Soviet cartoon character that was released during the New Year holidays this year, was a smashing success. It earned nearly 7 billion rubles ($74 million) against the 850 million (roughly $9 million) spent making it.
Filmmakers are following suit, remaking Soviet classics and turning to fairy tales. “The industry drew one conclusion: Russians very much want to distract themselves from what constitutes their daily routine," says Ivan Philippov, creative executive at AR Content, production company of renowned film producer Alexander Rodnyansky. "They very much don’t want to watch (films) about the war.”
As if to echo that sentiment, The Witness premiered in Russia without much fanfare and few mentions even in state media. At a movie theater in Moscow on a rainy Sunday afternoon last week, almost a dozen movie-goers said they came to see films other than The Witness, though several said they planned on watching it at some point. By the time the showing began, there were only about 20 people in an auditorium large enough for 180. During its first weekend, it had earned just over 6.7 million rubles — or about $70,000.
That's not entirely surprising, if you ask Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a history professor at New York University who studies authoritarianism and propaganda. “When an authoritarian is in a defensive position and is waging a war and it’s not going well,” she says, the films made for indoctrination purposes are “not often very good."