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Oscar Nominee 'Leviathan' Stirs Controversy in Russia

  • Daniel Schearf

Oscar nominee "Leviathan", which won the first Golden Globe for Russia since 1969, has caused some controversy at home. Its dark depiction of Russian life centers on the issue of official corruption and abuse of power in a small town. It also stereotypes Russians. The Ministry of Culture, which helped fund the film, has declared such “negative” films will never again receive official support.

Critically-acclaimed Leviathan takes viewers into life in a small town on Russia's northern coast along the Barents Sea. It quickly turns dark, as the local mayor, a member of Russia's real-life ruling party, forces a family off their land.

While Russian officials have criticized it, saying only “positive” films should receive government support, director, Andrey Zvyagintsev, who spoke to VOA in Moscow doesn't seem to mind.

“It goes without saying that when you recognize yourself in the mirror and you do not look attractive, and you do not want to see yourself as such a person, you want to erase the image. But you cannot erase the reflection in the mirror," said Zvyagintsev. "The mirror reflects you as you are. You can only shatter the mirror.”

The film also implies the Russian Orthodox church is partnered with, and benefits from, corrupt politicians.

The real-to-life church and state controversy should not be off-limits, Zvyagintsev insisted.

“Moreover, clericalism is a violation of the rights and freedoms of the citizens as clericalism is prohibited by constitutional law," he said. "That is, the alliance of church and power. That is why, being secular, I feel right in criticizing any institution as I have a full right to think freely.”

The director's previous films addressed other gloomy topics and also received international recognition.

After much delay, the film was released in Russia and received a great deal of praise, as well as disapproval.

Leviathan is pandering to Western stereotypes of Russia to win politicized Hollywood awards, argued retired psychology professor Oleg Romanovky.

“For the West it is exotic. Another attempt to spit at us and throw stones," said Romanovky. "But it is a pity that a talented director did something, I am trying to avoid profanities, with a garbage pile as the background.”

While the film is criticized for being “anti-Russian,” the plot is actually based on a true story of a zoning dispute in the United States.

Many Russians lament the film's heavy drinking, cursing, and broken families, but they also acknowledge much truth in the film.

Some do not want to see the film because they fear it would raise negative emotions they do not want to experience, according to travel agency director Yulia.

“I hope that the creative features of the film will be assessed taking into account that this is not the one and only truth about my country,” she said.

Zvyagintsev said the controversy over the film shows it hit at the core of the Russian context of today.

VOA's Russia service reporter in Moscow, Danila Galperovich, contributed to this report.

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