A film festival in Murmansk shows why dialogue with Russia is so necessary — and so tough

ANALYSIS: If you want to talk to Russian colleagues about matters close to their core persuasions, come well prepared.

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The male choir of Russia’s Northern Fleet performs at the award ceremony at the Northern Character film and television festival in Murmansk. (Lars-Petter Kalkenberg)

We drive from Kirkenes at the very top of Norway to the Russian border and across the tundra for four hours to Murmansk, the biggest city in the Arctic, with a population of about 300,000. The windshield wipers on our minibus battle snow most of the way. I have been asked to sit on the jury of Northern Character, a film and television festival in Murmansk about everything in the north. It is not one of the biggest film festivals in Russia, but well organized by people from the local television station TV21 in collaboration with colleagues from Norway, Sweden and Finland.

I am about to experience just how hard it is to level with Russians when the chips are down. A valuable lesson if one wants to understand why Arctic cooperation with Russia is so crucial — and so tough.

We drive through one the most militarized regions of the world. It is here in the northernmost part of northwest Russia that Russia’s mighty Northern Fleet keeps its stealthy submarines, its nuclear warheads, battle-ready warships, fighter jets, garrisons and so forth. To its neighbors, Russia is a constant source of nervous jitters and the Northern Character festival, now in its 11th year, is one of the many civil society projects designed to keep confidence building people-to-people conversations going across the borders.

Common history

For the festival, 174 film and TV productions in all genres have been selected. Hard-nosed unfiltered critique of those in power is not in vogue here, but the festival’s ambition reflects Russia’s long tradition of quality films and a newer trend, dating back at least 15 years, of cooperating with the neighboring Nordic countries.

Northwestern Russia, northern Finland and northern Norway share a long and complex history. For many centuries tradespeople from northern Russia brought  flour and meat to the poor fishermen in northern Norway. Today many Russians go shopping in Kirkenes where many street signs are bilingual, people in the border region do not need visas and many of residents of Kirkenes are Russian.

In the winter darkness we pass the memorial for those who died at the front close to Litsa River. In the Second World War some 40,000 Russian soldiers died here fighting German troops who, like us, came from the West.

From 1941 the Germans pressed forward in a fatal attempt to take Murmansk. In this part of Arctic Russia the harbors are ice-free year round and allied convoys from Great Britain and the United States used the harbor in Murmansk to deliver food, ammunition, and thousands of tanks, vehicles and fighter planes to the Red Army. The Germans were stopped at Litsa River, where a hellish battle raged for three years. The Germans died from the cold and Russian perseverance. In October 1944 the Red Army freed northern Norway. Kirkenes was the first city in Norway to be liberated from Nazi occupation, and the neighborly relations between Russian and Norway took on new depths.

The jury is split

War is also with us at the festival and one documentary, “Overdrive, return point” by Russia’s Natalia Gugueva causes us particular difficulties. The film is about Crimea, or more precisely about an airbase close to the town of Saky north of Sebastopol in the southern part of the Crimean peninsula.

In 1992 at the break-up of the Soviet Union, the airbase at Saky is Soviet, but it is now to be handed over to independent Ukraine along with the rest of Crimea. The Russian pilots are given a choice: You can continue to serve Russia, but only if you move to Severomorsk-3, an airbase near Murmansk in Russia’s Arctic. Or you can swear a new oath of allegiance to Ukraine and keep flying in the sun over Crimea.

The film, which is supported by the Russian Ministry of Culture, follows the pilots who go north; they refuse to pledge allegiance to anything but Russia. Through Guguevas skillful instruction and because of Eugen Kuznetsov, a charismatic Russian jet pilot and the main character of the film, Gugueva’s documentary is in many ways a deeply moving drama about patriotism, sacrifice and existential doubt. It is Gugueva’s third film about the pilots. She expertly uses older and brilliant new footage, and we are taken right into the fateful days in 2014, where Russian troops take over Crimea. Everyone fears that a war will break out between Ukraine and Russia, and the Russian pilots at Severomorsk-3 are forced to weigh whether they will be able to shoot at and potentially kill those of their old colleagues who chose to stay in Saky.

I would have rated this documentary among the very best at the festival, if it wasn’t for one unforgivable fault. About midway it constructs a grossly generalized, spiteful, manipulated and derogatory image of the entire Ukrainian people, which renders any praise of the film impossible.

After hours of discussion over two days of deliberations our jury is split in two. It is the Russians against us from the West. Without any prior contact between us, the four of us from the Nordic countries have all reached the same conclusion: We cannot give this particular documentary any of the many prizes of the festival.

Our professional conversation about films is about to disintegrate into personal attacks. One of our Russian jury members asks me whether I have ever served in the military, as if this has bearing on my ability to have an opinion on films. My Norwegian colleague is similarly treated. At no stage do our Russian friends acknowledge our key argument that such wildly generalizing and outright hateful statements about an entire people has no place in this world. In stead they suggest that we lack knowledge of Russia’s history or that our critique is caused by the film’s poor English subtitles. For reasons never shared with us, it is obviously not an option that the festival can end without praise to this film.

The president of the festival has to be summoned to break the deadlock and finally it is agreed that the jury will not award any prize to Gugueva’s film. It is also agreed, however, that the Russian president of the jury, acclaimed filmmaker Yusup Razykov, can award the film a “special mention” in his own name.

Nobody is really happy. But at least the four of us from the Nordic countries stood our ground and at the award ceremony in Murmansk our jury president dutifully tells the audience about the split.

I learned an important lesson. If you want to talk to Russian colleagues about matters close to their core persuasions, come well prepared. Be aware that you will not necessarily win the argument and that it may be worthwhile to prepare a Plan B that at least allows for continued dialogue.

The rest of the festival was loads of fun, loads of film — some good, some  bad. We had sincere and very useful, neighborly talks about journalism, art, our common history, the nature of peace and how we can work together. And in the jury we agreed when it came to the Grand Prix, the most prestigious of the prizes awarded. We gave this to “24 Snows,” a 90-minute documentary by Mikhail Barynin. A portrait rich in detail of Sergey, a horse breeder and reindeer herder in Yakutia in the Siberian forest. Barynin avoids the overly romantic while unfolding a disappearing way of life and the splendors of the natural world. The narrative of this Russian documentary is not be the sharpest, but our Russian colleagues argued convincingly why it is important that these marginal Arctic communities are brought forward in contemporary Russia. The footage of “24 Snows” is brilliant and the film is also awarded a prize for “best camera.”

Finally, at the peak of the award ceremony we are once again reminded of the permeating presence of Russia’s defense forces in this region. The large and almost all-male choir of Russia’s Northern Fleet treats us to a spectacular hour-long dance and song concert. A smooth baritone in black uniform sings “Strangers in the night” with the finest of Russian accents.

Martin Breum is a Danish journalist specializing in the Arctic. His participation at the Northern Character festival was organized by the Nordic Journalist Center in Denmark.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by ArcticToday, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary (at) arctictoday.com.