Disruptions and threats plague Russia’s top documentary film festival

Sergey Ermokhin / TASS

Over the course of the past week, Artdocfest — the largest documentary film festival in Russia — has been disrupted by the police, Russia’s consumer protection agency, threats, and pro-Kremlin activists. In response, Artdocfest’s organizers have been forced to cancel screenings and pull films, and have done their best to see the festival through regardless. Meduza breaks down the chain of disruptions and threats that have plagued Artdocfest 2021.

Friday, April 2

Artdocfest 2021 opens in Moscow. Screenings of original documentary films are set to take place at the Karo 11 Oktyabr Cinema from April 2–9. 

Saturday, April 3: Afternoon

Artdocfest’s organizers received threats “from radicals” from the pro-Kremlin movement SERB due to a planned screening of the Ukrainian documentary short film Birthmark. This was reported by one of the festival’s organizers, Russian film director Vitaly Mansky. The film tells the story of the director, Maria Shevchenko, as she travels to Crimea to visit her mother, who has schizophrenia. SERB’s members were outraged that the film’s description contained the phrase “occupied Crimea.” As a result, the film’s screening was moved to the online platform Artdoc.media — “for the safety of the viewers.” 

Saturday, April 3: Evening

Artdocfest opens in St. Petersburg. The festival’s events are set to take place at Dom Kino and the Lendok film studio from April 3–10. The first screening at Dom Kino shows the Russian documentary film Rastorguev, about Russian director Alexander Rastorguev, who was killed in the Central African Republic in 2018.

Police officers and officials from Rospotrebnadzor, Russia’s consumer protection agency, showed up to the opening. Artdocfest’s organizers reported that anti-LGBTQ activist Timur Bulatov had complained, claiming that the festival was allegedly promoting “LGBT values” among minors (a violation of Russia’s “gay propaganda” law) and violating anti-coronavirus restrictions. Police officers tried to enter the theater during screening of Rastorguev, but the festival organizers wouldn’t let them through — at that time, the audience was taking part in a moment of silence. After the screening, Rospotrebnadzor sealed two of the halls in Dom Kino, where Artdocfest’s screenings were supposed to take place. Rospotrebnadzor claimed this was due to multiple violations of sanitary measures. Artdocfest’s spokeswoman Olga Komok said that no sanitary measures were violated during the opening of the festival.

Sunday, April 4: Early hours

Artdocfest’s organizers announced that following Rospotrebnadzor’s decision to shut down the halls at Dom Kino, they had to cancel the film screenings that were set to take place at this venue.

Sunday, April 4: Afternoon

The Lendok film studio took down the posters for Artdocfest’s films. The film studio’s spokespeople said that Lendok had decided to cancel the festival’s screenings “in order to avoid provocations and the closure of our cultural center.”

Sunday, April 4: Evening

Police officers and Rospotrebnadzor officials came to Lendok film studio in response to a report that there were violations of anti-coronavirus restrictions at the venue. They left the film studio not long after their arrival.

Sunday, April 4: Late Evening

Artdocfest’s organizers reported receiving threats due to the upcoming screening of the French documentary film Silent Voice as part of the competition program. The film tells the story of a young MMA fighter, who fled Chechnya for Brussels after his older brother discovered his homosexuality and promised to kill him. A man who introduced himself as Suliman spoke to the festival’s managers and demanded that they cancel the screening, claiming that the documentary “violates the rights of Chechens” and offends their way of thinking since there are “no gays” in Chechnya. “Chechnya is dissatisfied. If the film is shown, there will be serious consequences,” Suliman told the organizers. 

Monday, April 5: Early Hours

All of the tickets for two screenings of the documentary Silent Voice scheduled for Monday, April 5 were bought up “instantaneously” through a single bank card transaction, reported director Vitaly Mansky. 

Monday, April 5: Afternoon

Vitaly Mansky announced that “under the pressure of the circumstances,” Artdocfest was cancelling the premiere of Silent Voice. Instead, the audience was shown Ksenia Okhapkina’s film Immortal, which won the festival’s top prize in 2019.


In a request sent to FSB Director Alexander Bortnikov, State Duma Deputy Vitaly Milonov asked that extremism charges be brought against Artdocfest’s organizers over the film Silent Voice.

Wednesday, April 7: Morning

Vitaly Mansky announced the cancellation of a screening of the Russian film Doazuv (Border) about the territorial dispute between Chechnya and Ingushetia. The screening was cancelled because the film wasn’t certified for distribution in Russia. If the film were to be shown, the legal entity behind Artdocfest could be banned from holding festivals in Russia for a three year period, Mansky explained. The film’s screening was transferred to the online platform, Artdoc.media

Wednesday, April 7: Evening

In Moscow, police officers and members of SERB showed up to an Artdocfest screening. The pro-Kremlin activists had called the police over the screening of the Belarusian film Way Home. The film’s description on the festival’s website said that it tells the story of a 28-year-old Pavel, who “moved from Crimea to a Ukrainian village after the annexation of the peninsula.” The activists took issue with the word “annexation.” Approximately eight “hooligans and provocateurs” burst into the cinema, where they started shouting about how the film allegedly offends residents of Crimea, Artdocfest spokeswoman Ekaterina Vizgalova said. The activists were removed from the hall one-by-old. Vizgalova noted that “the police and the cinema’s security were very friendly to us.” 

Friday, April 9: Afternoon

SERB members tried to attack Vitaly Mansky at the Oktyabr Cinema in Moscow. As Mansky was walking from one screening room to another, one of the activists came up behind him and tried to wrap a cloth around his neck. Mansky managed to get out of the way and wasn’t injured.

The festival organizers called the police but they never came. The people who tried to attack Mansky fled the scene.

Story by Alexander Baklanov

Translated by Eilish Hart


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