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Matilda Director Urges Russian Government To Respond To Campaign Of Threats, Violence

Russian Director Speaks Of 'Fear' Amid Film Controversy
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MOSCOW -- The director of a controversial forthcoming film about the early life of Tsar Nicholas II has called on the Russian government to do more to forestall violence as the film opens in cinemas next month.

In an interview with RFE/RL, filmmaker Aleksei Uchitel said he was mystified why the government has not acted "harshly and mercilessly, but within the confines of the law, of course" against those who have issued threats or committed violence in a bid to prevent the film from being shown.

"Those who committed arson attacks and so on, in my opinion, must be imprisoned because they have committed crimes," Uchitel said.

The film Matilda tells the story of a well-documented affair between Nicholas, when he was an unmarried crown prince, and a half-Polish ballerina. It has enraged conservative Russian Orthodox Christians, who say the depiction demeans Nicholas, who was canonized as an Orthodox saint in 2000. It is scheduled for release on October 26.

WATCH: Official Trailer For Matilda

On August 31, unknown assailants threw Molotov cocktails into the St. Petersburg building that houses Uchitel's production studio. On September 4, a man tried to ram his car into a cinema in Yekaterinburg and then threw an incendiary device. On September 11, two cars were set alight outside the Moscow office of Uchitel's lawyer.

A group calling itself Christian State-Holy Rus has sent letters to cinema owners "warning" that showing the film could lead to bloodshed and "civil war." On September 12, Russia's largest chain of cinemas announced it would not show Matilda, citing safety concerns.

On September 20, the self-proclaimed head of Christian State, Aleksandr Kalinin, was detained in connection with the campaign against the film.

"It is necessary, if you'll excuse me, to harshly punish someone and show that if someone does something like this, breaks the law, it won't be tolerated," Uchitel said. "So far, such a step has not been taken. I know that the guy who drove into the cinema in Yekaterinburg has been arrested and an investigation is ongoing. But nonetheless, it is only ongoing. And it has been said that he was insane..."


Although Matilda's critics accuse Uchitel of being unpatriotic, the director noted that the government has been in his corner in this dispute. Not only has the film been approved for distribution, it was about one-third funded by grants and loans distributed through the state's Cinema Foundation (Fond Kino). Nikita Mikhalkov, the Oscar-winning director and staunch supporter of President Vladimir Putin who heads the Russian Cinematographers Union, twice signed off on grants for Matilda.

Critics of the film -- including the most visible leader of the campaign, State Duma Deputy Natalya Poklonskaya -- have not seen it, Uchitel noted. Poklonskaya, he said, had declined an invitation to a screening.

Aleksei Uchitel (left) speaks to State Duma Deputy Natalya Poklonskaya in Moscow on September 14.
Aleksei Uchitel (left) speaks to State Duma Deputy Natalya Poklonskaya in Moscow on September 14.

"She refused, saying she doesn't need to see it," Uchitel said. " And when I watch television, I see the same eight people loudly and angrily talking. And every time they call me and try to drag me into this mess, I refuse. Not because I am afraid or anything, but because I tell them: 'Guys, first you need to watch the film, and then we can sit down and discuss it.'

"As for Poklonskaya, I have the impression that talking to her and persuading her of anything is practically impossible," Uchitel added. "She'll go all the way to the end in any event. I guess that is just her nature."

Uchitel insisted that he regards Nicholas II "no less respectfully and lovingly" than Poklonskaya does. The affair depicted in the film, he said, was a case of genuine love.

"The film is about a person -- and I think this is particularly interesting in the case of a saint," he said. "It is about showing the viewer or the nation that it is not an icon or a statue, but a person who suffered, was tormented, who thought and made a choice, a choice in favor of our country. It was either [ruling] or freedom, love, and real feelings."

Director Aleksei Uchitel: "The film is about a person -- and I think this is particularly interesting in the case of a saint."
Director Aleksei Uchitel: "The film is about a person -- and I think this is particularly interesting in the case of a saint."

He rejected accusations that his film is unpatriotic.

"A patriot, as I understand it, is not someone who waves flags, or shouts slogans, or cries 'Hurrah for Putin,' and so on," Uchitel said. "I want -- and not just me -- I sincerely want that in this country we had a situation where deputies did their business and didn't tell people how to make films. Where there were no bullies spouting nationalist slogans. Where people didn't throw Molotov cocktails into studios or set cars on fire. In that sense, I am a patriot.

"The fact that we have reached the point where people are afraid to go to the cinema because some insane pronouncements have terrorized them -- I think that is a real catastrophe," he concluded.

Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson based on reporting by RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Mumin Shakirov.
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    Mumin Shakirov

    Mumin Shakirov is an experienced field reporter and TV host for RFE/RL's Russian Service. He has covered armed conflicts in Tajikistan, Chechnya, Georgia, and the former Yugoslavia. An award-winning documentary filmmaker, Shakirov is the host of the weekly Facets Of Time TV show.

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    Robert Coalson

    Robert Coalson is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who covers Russia, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe.