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How Russia’s Anti-Profanity Law Is Affecting Independent Filmmakers

Screen shot from Valeria Gaius Germanica's “Yes & Yes,” a Russian film whose distribution certificate was pulled because of profanity on July 1.  Trailer uploaded by YouTube user Alexey Kraevsky

Screenshot from Valeria Gaius Germanica's “Yes & Yes,” an award-winning Russian independent film which was effectively banned three days after release. Trailer uploaded by YouTube user Alexey Kraevsky.

The Russian Parliament, known as the State Duma, passed a law banning profanity from theater, movies, public performances, music and books, earlier this summer.

It has been two months since the ban took effect on July 1, and filmmakers are still trying to grapple with how the law will have repercussions on their work and Russian culture at large.

Although on the surface profanity can be seen as an undesirable function of language, in Russia, profanity or mat  as it is known in Russian, isn’t just the vulgar language of the streets, it communicates an important sphere of thought, and currently has an important place in opera theatres, classical works of literature and independent film.

The ordinance, led by the Chairman of the Duma Committee on Culture Stanislav Govorukhin, comes on the heels of an ever-tightening spiral of conservative lifestyle legislature, which also includes banning “gay propaganda,” outlawing the sale of lace underwear, and requiring blogs with a readership of over 3000 visitors to register as official media.

New repercussions

Rather than “bleeping out” or cutting offensive language, censorship boards now have the authority to pull distribution certificates for any films judged to have profane content. Films with swear words will now need to be shown at special festivals and private screenings.

Equally troubling, the law now requires all films to obtain distribution certificates, which can cost up to 20,000 rubles (600 USD). “Documentary directors, whom I represent, do not care as much about the curse ban at the moment, as they care about the distribution licenses that they need to get as of July 1,” said  Olga Kurina, a commercial director of the Centre of National Film, in a roundtable discussion for vozduh.afisha.ru. “Previously distribution licences were only required for wider public showings, but now they apply to everyone,” she added.

In case a movie theater decides to show such a movie illegally, it would need to pay up to US $2,700 in fines. The law will levy fines up to US $70 for individual offenders and US $1,400 for organizations that continue using swear words in arts and media.

Books and DVDs that contain curse words have to be sold in special packaging that would warn people about “strong language.”

Pushing intelligentsia out?

According to the Kremlin, the ban was intended to further “the protection and development of linguistic culture.” Mat has its origins in street culture, working class areas, villages, and communities with little formal schooling, leading some to speculate that banning swear words is meant to promote more “educated” language. However, mat is a nuanced, ever-developing linguistic culture, used by proletariat and intelligentsia alike as a language of opposition.

“Russian mat is a unique and even sacred linguistic phenomenon. Its roots lie deep down in the Russian traditional culture. And the ban on its use is very stupid. On the contrary one could offer to protect it as a cultural heritage,” Valeriya Gai Germanika, a prominent Russian movie director whose critically acclaimed film Yes and Yes was pulled from distribution as a result of the ban, told Trud newspaper.

Movies, literature and plays are among the tools that opposition artists use to deliver their message. The heaviest language is often found in films that are about the heaviest social issues – for example, movies about the war, the police, or the working class. As documentary filmmaker Marina Razbezhkina has noted, it is virtually impossible to film a documentary about real people while omitting the use of profanity, since it is so intertwined in the lexicon. Therefore, there is speculation that this law was aimed at silencing oppositional voices.

Further, banning particular words attacks the symptom, rather than the underlying problem. Although Russian official rhetoric claims to take pride in the country’s tradition of rich homegrown cultural output, it has done little to nurture it, instead investing little in education, taking the brightest students to the army and forcing intelligentsia to flee the country.

This legislation is not expected to impact foreign movie producers, as strong language in foreign movies will be dubbed into a more benign lexicon. (Although, foreign films that depict Russia in an unfavorable light may be the target of another ban in the near future.)

Optionality of execution

The reality is that Russia’s most infamous laws are either not implemented at all or only partially enforced.  Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, a 19th century Russian satirist once noted that ‘the ferocity of Russian laws are compensated by optionality of their execution.”  

When Andrey Zvyagintsev, a prominent Russian film director, won an award for the Best Screenplay in Cannes Film Festival in 2014 for his film Leviathan, movie critics predicted that his movie would never be shown in Russia.  Leviathan tells a story about a man who tries to fight corruption in one of the remote towns in Russia. The movie touches upon the most important social aspects through the usage of curse words and powerful dialogues.

film poster for “Yes & Yes,” a Russian film whose distribution certificate was pulled because of profanity. image taken from kinopoisk.ru

Film poster for “Yes & Yes,” an award-winning independent film that was affected by the ban three days after release. Poster from kinopoisk.ru

Zvyagintsev refused to edit the movie and get rid of the curse words. “We weighed every word; the whole vocabulary is appropriate there. It is a living language; it helps here. Castrated language and restrictions are bad for art,” he said during a press conference in Cannes.

Despite all the controversy, Zvyagintsev received the distribution certificate eight days after the law was enacted. “There are very few obscene words in the movie. It sounds like a language of truth, and the truth is the beauty,” Zvyagintsev told Itar Tass.

Valeria Gai Germanika’s Yes and Yes was not so lucky. Although the film won the director’s prize at the Moscow 36th International Film Festival and grossed nearly $30,000 in ticket sales within a limited three-day release shortly before the ban went into effect, it was not granted a distribution certificate due to its extensive use of provocative language.  

“Changing my dialogues or making any cuts will definitively harm my movie; it will bother me very much. I don't know what I'll do… Swearing is a part of my life and my heroes’ lives,” Germanika told Fipresci.org.

On the other hand, some films were outlawed even prior to the profanity law – Clip, a Sebian movie directed by Maja Milos, was banned back in 2012 due to its depiction of explicit obscene language, drug and alcohol consumption, and heavily sexualized scenes featuring minors.

As filmmakers and independent artists struggle with these new challenges, it remains to be seen whether law will be used to set up a new cultural standard or to instill self-censorship and selectively punish certain artists.

This story was commissioned by Freemuse, the leading defender of musicians worldwide, and Global Voices for Artsfreedom.org. The article may be republished by non-commercial media, crediting the author Masha Egupova, Freemuse and Global Voices and linking to the origin.

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