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Russia: Government Bans Serbian Film for Underage Sex and Drugs

Late last week, on August 17, 2012, Sam Klebanov announced [ru] that Russia's Ministry of Culture has banned the release of a Serbian film called ‘Clip,’ written and directed by Maja Miloš. (Watch the trailer here.)

Klebanov's company, Cinema Without Borders [ru], owns the Russian distribution rights to Clip, which was honored with a Hivos Tiger Award at the forty-first International Film Festival Rotterdam in the Netherlands earlier this year.

Klebanov posted [ru] to his Facebook page a photograph of an official letter from former Kremlin youth group ideologue Ivan Demidov (now the Deputy Minister of Culture), where Demidov explained the ban on the grounds that the movie depicts “obscene language, scenes of narcotics and alcohol use, and material of a pornographic nature.”

Given that the film features actors between 14 and 16 in age, Demidov also cited a 2010 federal law (Number 436) that mandates the protection of minors from information that could harm their health and development.

A light example of underage illicit behavior from the film. (A still from the cinematic trailer of "Clip," 25 July 2012, YouTube video.)

A light example of underage illicit behavior from the film. (A still from the cinematic trailer of “Clip,” 25 July 2012, YouTube video.)

In an interview [ru] with the online newspaper Gazeta.Ru, another Culture Ministry official named Yuri Vasiuchkov offered a slightly different justification for the ban, basing the decision on a rather loose interpretation of an older federal law from 1993 (Number 396) that includes a sub-clause potentially empowering the government to withhold the legal distribution of films “in certain cases.”

The banning of Clip comes at a moment in Russian society when tensions concerning the nation's “moral fiber” are running high. In the aftermath of the Pussy Riot trial and a wider cultural conversation about the relationship between religion and the state, the Ministry of Culture's action strikes many as the latest in a series of attempts at censorship.

Blogger after blogger has either ridiculed or celebrated the fact that the government's decision only heightens [ru] the publicity [ru] of a film that would otherwise have gone largely unnoticed as a foreign art-house project.

Twitter user M1D1EZ, for instance, highlighted the movie's wide availability online via file sharing and social networking sites, writing [ru] ironically:

Скандальный фильм сербской дебютантки Майи Милош “Клип” не выйдет на российские экраны! Особенно через “вконтакте” и торрент-трекеры.

The scandalous film by Serbian debutante Maja Miloš, “Clip,” will not be coming to Russian screens! Especially [not] through “Vkontakte” and torrent-trackers.

Oppositionist-leaning WebTV station Dozhd (“TV Rain”) aired [ru] a brief segment about the banning of the film, declaring with some alarmism: “it seems celibacy is returning to Russia — all thanks to Russian bureaucrats.” Humorist Evgeny Shestakov, pretending to be Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky, penned a satirical letter [ru], lampooning the government's reasons for banning Clip.

Among the various mock objections (which included the Minister's supposed disapproval of the male lead's bored self-expression during a fellatio scene), Shestakov even embedded a link to the Swedish file-sharing site, The Pirate Bay, where “Clip” can be downloaded illegally for free.

It goes without saying that Clip is an explicit film. The director insists that “underaged persons weren't involved in scenes of explicit sex and nudity,” but this warning for some reason appears at the end of the movie, rather than the beginning. Moreover, all principle actors are minors, and “scenes of explicit sex and nudity” clearly does not include several heavily sexualized moments in the film, all of which star a 14-year-old girl. (Some Russian bloggers have highlighted this aspect, and indeed embraced [ru] the Culture Ministry's decision to ban the movie.)

Writing [ru] in the online newspaper Svobodnaia Pressa, Konstantin Ananev raises the interesting point that Russia's approach to controversial films has been far more selective than extensive. Specifically, he names an upcoming drug-and-sex-packed movie, “Dukhless,” from Kremlin allies Sergei Minaev and Fyodor Bondarchuk, which is not only assured a wide distribution, but was actually funded in part by the Ministry of Culture. Additionally, Nikita Mikhalkov — another favorite of the government — recently enjoyed a ‘bending of the rules’ when it came to enforcing age limits on ticket sales to his box office flop Burnt by the Sun 2.

Still from the cinematic trailer of “Clip,” 25 July 2012, YouTube video.

In other words, the Ministry of Culture's objections to Clip and similar cases have all the appearance of moral indignation and creeping religious puritanism, but the underlying reality is more often that the government is simply playing favorites. In the case of Clip, the ban — whether initiated by Demidov, Medinsky, or someone “higher” — carries an undeniable populist character, not unlike the case against Pussy Riot.

Indeed, opposition figure Vladimir Milov made exactly this point in a recent op-ed [ru], arguing that the Kremlin has used the Pussy Riot trial to distract the opposition and, in the minds of the Russian public, equate liberalism with perverts who defile churches. (Milov highlights as a refutation of the “Church takeover of the state” theory the ongoing and under-reported criminal case against Igor Artemov, a man charged with illegally “promoting the exclusivity of Russian Orthodoxy.”)

While Russian netizens and protesters are unlikely to rally around Maja Miloš as they have Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, the temptation exists and the risks for the opposition are similar. Is the banning of “Clip” an early glance at the dawning of some new, more restrictive state morality? Or does the government's inconsistency in its “moral policies” indicate challenges that are less religious or cultural than political?

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