Russian President Vladimir Putin has rejected calls for the release of detained filmmaker Kirill Serebrennikov to allow him to travel to the Cannes Film Festival.
Festival organizers said on May 10 that French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had written to Putin, asking him to give the 48-year-old Serebrennikov permission to attend the screening of his film Leto (Summer) about 1980s Russian rock legend Viktor Tsoi.
But according to festival director Thierry Fremaux, Putin rejected the plea in a letter received shortly before the film's premiere on May 9, saying, "Serebrennikov has problems with the judiciary of our country. I would have loved to help, but the courts are independent."
Serebrennikov has been under house arrest since being detained in August 2017 on charges of financial fraud, which he denies and has called "absurd." His supporters have said the case against him is politically motivated.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on May 10 said Putin himself did not write the letter refusing to release Serebrennikov but rather it was the Russian Foreign Ministry, "explaining that as in any country," the president does not have "the power to influence the decision of judicial or investigative bodies" in Russia.
That is accurate in terms of the letter of the law -- as in other countries, the executive and judicial branches of government are separate. But government critics and judicial reform advocates say that Russian courts lack independence and are frequently used by the Kremlin and local authorities to impose their will and punish opponents.
Serebrennikov was detained in the final stages of shooting the film and was forced to edit the film while under house arrest.
"It's as if we've returned to the Middle Ages," Ukrainian-born filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa told AFP. Loznitsa's movie about the conflict in eastern Ukraine, Donbas, was shown at the festival.
"We woke up to find that our director was not there," Ilya Stewart, the Russian producer of Serebrennikov's film, told a press conference in Cannes. "We think it's a completely ridiculous situation."
"There's been huge support from the West," Stewart said. "There's also been huge support from Russia. It's important to note [that] a big cluster of liberally minded people are as outraged by the situation, and it's a national discussion [now] in Russia."
The film's stars and crew staged a protest on Cannes' red carpet ahead of its premiere. They wore buttons with a photo of Serebrennikov and also held a large sign with the director's name spelled out in large black letters on a white background.
During the Cannes premiere of Leto on May 9, festival organizers left a chair empty for the detained director. The film received a standing ovation.
Leto portrays the rock scene of the early 1980s in Leningrad -- now St. Petersburg -- where musicians had to submit lyrics for official approval and audiences at the city's one rock venue were policed to ensure they remained seated and did not show too much enthusiasm.
Tsoi went on to become one of the most successful and influential rock musicians in Russia before his death in a car crash in 1990, aged 28.
Not overtly political, the film will be released in Russia, but with its director under arrest, its theme of state censorship and oppression is not likely to go unnoticed.
"This was more of a historical film – talking about the context of that time, not stressing any similarities [with the present]," Stewart said.
"Although, in my personal opinion, anything Kirill does in his work, whether it's ballet, theater or any of his films, it's about today. He speaks about today," he said.
Leto is one of 21 movies in competition for the coveted Palme d'Or award. The festival runs from May 8-19.