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Russian Action Film Vows 'The Truth' About Ukraine War

Kaliningrad-based actress Maria Avramenko plays a Russian TV reporter trapped in the city of Slovyansk in eastern Ukraine.
Kaliningrad-based actress Maria Avramenko plays a Russian TV reporter trapped in the city of Slovyansk in eastern Ukraine.

Menacing Ukrainian soldiers? Check. American mercenaries, noble separatists, and valiant Russian journalists? Check, check, and check.

A new Russian movie currently in the works is pushing its version of the "truth" about the Ukraine crisis in what could become the first fictionalized film account of the conflict.

Tentatively titled "Pravda" ("The Truth"), the film appears to hew closely to the Kremlin's line on the Ukraine war, pitting villainous Ukrainian military forces against noble rebel fighters in a battle that ensnares a Russian television crew.

Shot on a shoestring budget in Russia’s western exclave of Kaliningrad, the project was blessed this week by prominent pro-Kremlin media entrepreneur Konstantin Rykov, who called on patriotic-minded Russians to donate 300,000 rubles ($7,800) to help the producers finish the film.

"The very fact that this film is being made has triggered an uproar of emotions and hate among residents of Ukraine who hold anti-Russian attitudes," reads the pitch posted Rykov’s site on September 23.

Director Oleg Dzhurayev, with the bullhorn, instructing actors on the set of "The Truth."
Director Oleg Dzhurayev, with the bullhorn, instructing actors on the set of "The Truth."

News of the film has, indeed, already raised hackles in Ukraine, where media outlets have dismissed the film as "propaganda" aimed at whitewashing the Kremlin's invasion of Ukraine and support for pro-Russian separatists in the country’s east.

The project has received assistance from Russia's so-called "power agencies" -- that is, military and law-enforcement agencies -- in the Kaliningrad region, the film's director, Oleg Dzhurayev, told the Russian news portal Svobodnaya Pressa earlier this month.

"There's a lot of them in the region, thank God," Dzhurayev said.

These agencies include Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), the main successor agency to the Soviet-era KGB, whose border-control division and institute in the region provided military equipment and manpower, Dzhurayev says.

Students from the institute have worked as extras in the film alongside local military enthusiasts, he told the Kaliningrad television station NTRK Kaskad.

The actors and crew have been working for free on "sheer enthusiasm," Dzhurayev told Svobodnaya Pressa, though he managed to secure the services of Vasily Shchipitsyn, a veteran of Russian stage and television.

Dzhurayev, who in his day job works as a spokesman for the FSB’s border-control division in the region, told RFE/RL in an e-mail exchange that he is currently unable to give interviews about the film.

He said, however, that filming is set to wrap up this weekend and that editing and sound work is currently under way. In earlier interviews, he said he hoped to finish the film by the end of the year.

Besieged Journalists, 'American' Guns

The exact details of the plot remain unclear, though Dzhurayev told Svobodnaya Pressa that it revolves around a Russian television crew trapped in the eastern Ukrainian town of Slovyansk, which served as a hub for pro-Russian separatists until being retaken by Ukrainian forces in July.

Veteran television and stage actor Vasily Shchipitsyn plays a member of the Russian TV news crew trapped in Slovyansk.
Veteran television and stage actor Vasily Shchipitsyn plays a member of the Russian TV news crew trapped in Slovyansk.

The journalists "don’t make it out of Slovyansk in time and land in a very unpleasant and deadly dangerous situation," Dzhurayev said.

A trailer that Dzhurayev posted on his Vkontakte page suggests that the female lead's fellow journalists are killed when Ukrainian forces shell the city, echoing the real-life deaths of Russian television journalists Igor Kornelyuk and Anton Voloshin, who died during a mortar attack on a separatist checkpoint outside Luhansk on June 17.

The plot also involves officers of the now disbanded Berkut riot police who cracked down on the Euromaidan protests in Kyiv, and the pro-Kyiv Azov Battalion, a volunteer unit that includes radical right-wing members, according to Andrey Rumyantsev, a Russian photographer who visited the set.

"American mercenaries" also figure in the plot, Rumyantsev wrote in a photo essay posted on his blog.

The inclusion of American boots on the ground in Ukraine could be a reference to claims by Russia’s Foreign Ministry in April that the private U.S. military contracting firm Greystone sent 150 contractors to work alongside ultranationalists in southeastern Ukraine.

Greystone denied the claim, while the U.S.ambassador in Kyiv called the assertion "rubbish."

The only American publicly known to have fought alongside Ukrainian forces in the conflict is Mark Paslawsky, a New Jersey native of Ukrainian heritage who was killed last month while serving in a volunteer battalion.

This week, a video emerged of a man with an American accent claiming to be a U.S. citizen fighting alongside pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

'The Bad Guys'

"The Truth" is not the first example of a Russian film backing the Kremlin's position in an armed conflict involving separatists and a Western-leaning former Soviet neighbor.

Less than a year after Russia's eight-day war with Georgia in 2008 over the breakaway Georgian republic of South Ossetia, Russia’s state-owned Channel One television aired a film called "Olympius Inferno," which blamed the conflict on Georgia's then-President Mikheil Saakashvili. (Senior Georgian officials were later reportedly involved in producing a Saakashvili-friendly film version of the war called "Five Days In August," which starred Cuban-born U.S. actor Andy Garcia as the Georgian leader.)

There appears to be little doubt that the villains in "The Truth" will be the Kyiv-backed forces and their supporters in the West.

Producer Nikolai Sokolov -- a special forces police officer who wrote the screenplay and collaborated with Dzhurayev on a short film named Best Patriotic Film at a Russian festival last year -- warned some of the actors that their roles might not jibe with their own politics.

"We are the bad guys, got it?” Sokolov told a group of young men on the set as a local television crew filmed. "If, for political reasons, someone can't play along or be in this film or play a bad guy, then please leave immediately. No hard feelings."

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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