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Navalny's Selection For Prestigious Cinema Prize Provokes Rift In Russia's Film Community

“I feel uncomfortable calling myself a director if Navalny is considered a director," says Nikita Mikhalkov, a staunch Putin supporter who heads the Russian Filmmakers’ Union. "He has nothing to do with cinema.”

MOSCOW -- The Russian Guild of Film Critics has dropped its prestigious White Elephant cinema prize after its own expert panel awarded jailed opposition politician Aleksei Navalny for a series of investigative documentaries revealing evidence of corruption among the country's top officials.

Video investigations released by Navalny over the past year have been viewed tens of millions of times on YouTube. They include reports about a Black Sea palace allegedly built for President Vladimir Putin and a probe into Navalny’s poisoning in Siberia last August, which he blames on Putin and the Federal Security Service.

But the viral clips have angered the Russian authorities, prompting official requests that the U.S. video-hosting platform take them down and leading Putin and members of his government to dismiss corruption claims advanced by Navalny, who is now serving a 2 1/2-year prison sentence on one of several charges he contends were fabricated by the Kremlin to sideline and discredit him.

Russian film director Nikita Mikhalkov (left) enjoys a toast with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg in 2016.
Russian film director Nikita Mikhalkov (left) enjoys a toast with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg in 2016.

The jury of the White Elephant film award, which is given out in over a dozen categories, announced its list of winners on March 14. Navalny and his creative team, which includes members of his Moscow-based Anti-Corruption Foundation, were nominated in a special category titled Event Of The Year and were expected to be officially recognized at a ceremony next month.

But the decision to include Navalny, Putin’s most outspoken critic over the past decade, prompted what the expert council said in a statement was “the first conflict in 22 years of the award’s existence” -- and one playing out in what the council called an atmosphere of “pressure and attempts to censor its activities.”

The Russian Guild of Film Critics, a professional organization which is part of the Russian Filmmakers’ Union and is headquartered in Moscow, subsequently announced it would no longer sponsor the award, which it has conferred annually since 1998, first as The Golden Ram and then under the name The White Elephant.

Nikita Mikhalkov, the Oscar-winning director who heads the Russian Filmmakers’ Union and is a staunch Putin supporter, asserted that the decision to award Navalny violated the tenets of the annual prize.

“I feel uncomfortable calling myself a director if Navalny is considered a director. He has nothing to do with cinema,” Mikhalkov, who made a movie called 55 for Putin's 55th birthday in 2007, told the newspaper Sobesednik. “If you give a prize for politics, dear friends, then please make that clear.”

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Navalny’s videos documenting alleged corruption among government officials and Kremlin-connected tycoons have proved popular in Russia. Over the years, the reports have acquired a recognizable character, with Navalny’s sardonic speeches before the camera often peppered with short clips from American animated cartoons.

By far, the most viewed has been an investigation into a $1.36 billion Black Sea estate that the Kremlin critic and his allies say was built for Putin, with images of tacky interiors and testimony from people involved in its construction. It has racked up almost 115 million views since its publication on January 19 -- two days after Navalny was arrested upon his return from Germany after five months of treatment and recuperation from his poisoning.

WATCH: Putin's Palace (with English subtitles):

In its statement, the award’s expert council said it would continue to preside over the White Elephant despite the guild’s decision to withdraw support. But it alleged that “the resulting standoff harms the reputation of the guild, which remains a hostage of an archaic lack of change in leadership and stagnation within the Russian Filmmakers’ Union.”

Among the 43 signatories to the expert council’s statement are prominent directors, journalists, and film critics, such as Anton Dolin, who defended the council’s decision to recognize Navalny’s work in a column for the independent online publication New Times.

“If there’s a plot, an author, a topic, suspense, a protagonist and antagonist, humor, etc., then it’s without a doubt a film,” he wrote of Navalny’s investigations. “And if it doesn’t correspond to certain canons of film, then it’s time those canons are changed.”

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    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.