Would the Tribeca Film Festival also award a film starring Islamic State terrorists?
Over the last four years film festivals throughout the world have been holding acts of solidarity with Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, one of the first victims of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in 2014. That alone makes the decision this year by the Tribeca Film Festival to instead give a top award to a film starring a Russian fighter in Donbas taking part in Russia’s undeclared war against Ukraine at the very least startling.
Tribeca describes the ‘hero’ of Phone Duty as a “Donbass rebel fighter” which makes it all sound quite respectable. In fact, it would have taken very little trouble to uncover the rot. Zakhar Prilepin, the so-called ‘hero’ of the film, is a Russian writer turned fighter who has come to Ukrainian Donbas to use the weapons provided by Russia against Ukraine. Even if the claims that he spoke of the need for a purge of the Ukrainian people, with children killed, for victory over Ukraine are exaggerated, or untrue, there is more than enough evidence that he views the war in Donbas as fighting for ‘”the Russian world” and Ukrainian territory “the goal” to be ‘returned’ to Russia. .
While it may be Ukrainians who have most vocally expressed their anger at this award, it is by no means only they who view the Russians who come to fight in Ukraine as terrorists. A number of individuals from various European countries are currently serving sentences or are on trial for doing the same as Prilepin and fighting in Donbas. Briton Ben Stimson was, for example, prosecuted under the Terrorism Act and sentenced in July 2017 to five and a half years’ imprisonment.
The Tribeca Film Festival’s judges who awarded this Russian film the 2018 prize for Best Narrative Short should also be aware that only a film in support of the Russian-backed militants in Donbas could have been produced in Russia. It is quite simply dangerous for Russians to show support for Ukraine or express criticism of Russia’s occupation of Crimea and military aggression in Donbas. Several Russian citizens have faced prosecution, and some have served, prison sentences for literally no more than such critical posts on social media. Even Russian mercenaries, like Arseny Pavlov (‘Motorola’) who had effectively confessed to war crimes, are treated like heroes if killed, while Russians who have fought on the side of Ukraine’s government face up to six years’ imprisonment in Russia.
Worth noting also that two Ukrainians who had never set foot in Chechnya were seized by Russia’s FSB in 2014, held incommunicado and tortured into ‘confessing’ to killing Russian soldiers during the first war in Chechnya in 1994/95. For this crime that they could not physically have committed Mykola Karpyuk and Stanislav Klykh were sentenced to 22 and 20 years, respectively. Prilepin is one of very many Russians who have been trained, encouraged, and most often paid to kill Ukrainian soldiers in Donbas. None has faced any problems back in Russia, and there is no question of any being handed over to Ukraine, even where there is strong evidence of war crimes.
It is possible that the film is truly well-made. Those arguing that this should be the only relevant criterion might like to consider, however, whether they would feel just as happy about publicly awarding a film in which Islamic State terrorists or neo-Nazi Holocaust-deniers are the heroes.
All of the above makes the decision by the prestigious New York Tribeca Film Festival seem profoundly regrettable. It can and should be reversed.