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Analysis & Opinion
23.03.09 Casting For The Russian Film
By Dmitry Babich

Nikita Mikhalkov, a charismatic film director and an outspoken Vladimir Putin loyalist, appears to be winning the fight for control over the Union of Cinematographers of Russia, one of the few remaining influential artistic guilds in the country. Mikhalkov has been the chairman of the Union since 1997. Under his leadership, a certain rebirth of Russian cinema did indeed take place, but critics point out that most of the profits went to the commercial sector of the Russian cinema industry and to foreign cinema studios. Art house cinema, Russia’s pride in the twentieth century, continues facing economic problems, with little opportunity to reach the Russian mass audience.

Mikhalkov, 63, has been involved in a bitter struggle with a group of other famous cinema directors, who dislodged him from his position as chairman of the union last December, electing 83-year-old Marlen Khutsiyev instead.

Mikhalkov’s loyalists did not attend this congress. The most radical of the rebels accused Mikhalkov of mismanagement and unfair accounting, which could lead to embezzlement of the union’s funds. Mikhalkov denied the accusations, declared the December “gathering” an illegitimate one, and proposed to convene a new congress on March 30, where his supporters are expected to take hold of most of the seats in the Union’s new leadership. Mikhalkov said he would not run for reelection himself.

During his press conference at the Izvestia daily on Monday, Mikhalkov was clearly in his element, making an artistic performance out of answering routine questions. At one point, he offered to telephone his arch-rival, the “alternative” chairman Marlen Khutsiyev, right from his seat on live television. The call did not get through, but journalists could participate in Mikhalkov’s minute of fame, desperately searching for the number of Khutsiyev’s mobile phone in their notebooks. Apparently, Marlen Khutsiyev, the predictably old-fashioned legend of the Soviet cinema in the 1960s, did not have a mobile phone, and Mikhalkov squeezed the maximum amount of venom out of this trivial fact. “Someone is trying to make a clown out of Marlen Khutsiyev,” Mikhalkov said. “If the Union dies on April 1 and its property is confiscated, if criminal proceedings get started, who will go to answer the investigators’ questions? Khutsiyev! And the people hiding behind his back and planning a seizure of the Union’s assets will use him as a shield.”

Mikhalkov claims that if “his” congress is not convened and the new leadership of the Union is not elected, the Ministry of Justice may simply liquidate the union and transfer its property to the state. Mikhalkov’s opponents, however, accuse him of deliberately overdramatizing the situation in a bid to get rid of the “alternative” chairman Marlen Khutsiyev.

“The activity of the Union of Cinematographers can indeed be suspended for six months, but I don’t see any tragedy in this,” said Andrei Stolbunov, the attorney representing the interests of Khutsiyev and his supporters in the Union of Cinematographers. “In fact, it may push the Union’s members toward greater consolidation.”

Mikhalkov said that he was not interested in the conflict with Khutsiyev and his supporters, inviting them to come to “his” congress on March 30 and take part in the vote. However, Mikhalkov dismissed the suggestion of a young cinema director Yelena Yatsura for the two rival groups to meet on “neutral turf” and start negotiations. Marlen Khutsiyev refused to come to Mikhalkov’s congress, saying that by visiting it he would betray the trust of his supporters and recognize his own illegitimacy as the chairman of the union.

The army of Khutsiyev’s supporters appeared to have started shrinking last week, as some members of the Moscow branch of the union, the largest in Russia, agreed to come to Mikhalkov’s congress. “Of course, they said that they would vote against Mikhalkov’s suggestions and against the candidacies of his prot?g?s,” commented Marina Timasheva, a cinema critic at Radio Liberty’s Russian service. “But their mere coming to the congress is a tacit recognition of Khutsiyev’s illegitimacy. Mikhalkov made a perfect staging of his victory.”
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