Russian Invasion Hits Ukrainian Production Industry Just Starting to Go International
Russia’s military action in east Ukraine, which saw big explosions across the country, including in the capital Kyiv, and reports of Russian forces landing in Odessa on Ukraine’s southern coast, started after months of speculation about Russia’s intentions after it massed tens of thousands of troops on Ukraine’s border.
The attacks, which Russian President Vladimir Putin has said are intended to “demilitarize” Ukraine, have sparked condemnation worldwide, with the European Commission calling it an act of “unprecedented military aggression” and U.S. President Joe Biden warning that Putin’s “premeditated war [will bring] a catastrophic loss of life and human suffering.” He also promised that “the United States and its allies and partners would respond in a united and decisive way” to hold Russia accountable.
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky declared martial law early on Thursday in a televised address to the nation shortly before 7 a.m. local time, though he did not immediately clarify what restrictions would be in place. Ukrainian airspace has been closed to commercial flights, due to “potential hazard for military aviation” after several of the Russian attacks hit planes at Ukrainian airports.
While the threat to the Ukraine civil population and the nation at large is paramount, the Russian invasion is also certain to disrupt private and commercial activity across the country. For Ukraine’s nascent film and television industry, the invasion comes at a time when it was just beginning to open up to the rest of the world.
“The film and TV industry in Ukraine had just started to open up, just started to work with international productions, build up a system, and now everything is shutting down,” producer Nebojsa Taraba tells THR. Taraba was a lead producer on the crime series Silence, a Croatian-Russian-Ukrainian-German co-production that shot in Ukraine and has sold to HBO Europe across Central and Eastern Europe.
“We have been talking to our partners in Ukraine and in Russia, and to Kseniia Mishina, our lead actress on Silence, who is in Ukraine. We’re all horrified at what’s happening,” Taraba says. “We are most scared for people’s lives, of course, that they will be safe.”
For the film and TV industry in the region, Taraba says the conflict “will ruin everything” Ukraine and Russia have done in the last decade. “Russia was a really booming market before this, the streaming services had really opened up the opportunities for high-end television, and all the streamers were preparing to increase production there,” he notes. “Now, Russia has isolated itself.”
The conflict will make business with Russia “impossible” says Taraba. “Just in practical terms, we need to have financial transfers between countries, between television companies in Moscow and Kyiv. That’s just not possible now.”
Dariusz Jablonski, a Polish producer who has worked on several productions in Ukraine, including the pan-European crime series The Pleasure Principle and the film Rhino from Oleh Sentsov, says it is up to the international community, including filmmakers in Russia, to stand up against “this crazy madman” Putin.
“I know my partners in Russia and I know they are against this [war],” Jablonski tells THR. “If they really love their country, it is their patriotic duty to stand up against this.”
Jablonski says he is concerned for the safety of Ukrainian filmmakers, including Sentsov, who have been openly defiant of Russia in the past.
Sentsov became a cause célèbre in 2014 he was arrested by Russian forces in Crimea while protesting Russia’s annexation of the region. A Russian court found Sentsov guilty of “plotting terrorist acts” and sentenced him to 20 years in prison. Only a coordinated effort by the European Film Academy, Amnesty International and the European Parliament, involving public statements of support from acclaimed directors, including Ken Loach, Pedro Almodóvar and Agnieszka Holland, led to his freedom. On Sept. 7, 2019, five years after his arrest, Sentsov was released together with two dozen other Ukrainian inmates in a prisoner swap. Senstov has previously said he would “take up arms” to fight if Russian troops invade the country.
“I emailed Oleh this morning and told him to be safe, to protect himself,” Jablonski says. “I told him: ‘don’t get yourself killed. You have value for the future of Ukraine’.”
Sentsov’s new film Rhino only just recently opened in Ukrainian cinemas. But with explosions reported in several cities, including Kyiv, a majority of theaters have been shuttered for the time being.
In recent years, a new generation of Ukrainian filmmakers has emerged, several of which have garnered international attention. Sentsov’s latest film Rhino, a look at the collapse of Ukrainian society and the rise of organized crime in the country that followed the end of the Soviet Union, won the Horizons Award at last year’s Venice Film Festival. Klondike, the new film from Ukrainian director Maryna Er Gorbach, a drama set on the Ukraine-Russia border during the last invasion in 2014, won the best director honors in the World Cinema dramatic section of the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.
On the production side, the Ukrainian government and local production companies have made major strides in developing the country’s film and TV infrastructure and attracting international productions. The Ukrainian Parliament adopted a film tax incentive in 2016, which provides cash rebates of up to 25 percent of local spend and an additional 10 percent of local costs for non-resident cast and crew. Ukraine updated the legislation in 2020, and the country’s film body joined pan-European subsidy group Eurimages.
But the future of the Ukrainian industry, like that of the country itself, is now decidedly uncertain.