Artdocfest is a crucial outpost of free expression on Russia’s doorstep

On the day of the funeral of Alexei Navalny, Vladimir Putin’s most prominent opponent, the biggest festival of documentary film in the former Soviet countries opened in Latvia with a minute’s silence. Artdocfest Riga’s programme spoke out resoundingly against the brutal dictatorships of Russia and Belarus, and provided a valuable space for Ukrainian filmmakers and others fomenting freedom and democracy in the region.

Having permanently relocated from Moscow to Riga in March 2022 following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the festival does not permit “any film produced in Russian studios in the competition programs”. But it did showcase films by foreign directors showing the Russian legal system’s crushing of dissent: Russia vs Lawyers (Masha Novikova, Germany), The Dmitriev Affair (Jessica Gorter, Netherlands) and The Last Relic (Marianna Kaat, Estonia).

Silent Sun of Russia (Sybilla Tuxen, Denmark) charts the inner turmoil of three young women displaced by the war as they join the more than 800,000 people who have left Russia following its invasion of Ukraine in 2022. This number includes filmmakers, such as Vitaly Akimov, now based in France, whose film The Last Summer celebrates a Russian youth scene of alternative art and anti-establishment attitudes.

When The Motherland Aborts You, also titled Country Abortion (Zoya Vodyanova, a pseudonym, Czechia/US) follows a lesbian couple. One of the women, Zakhara, has moved to India and the other, Lina, starts the film in St Petersburg. Zakhara is desperate to help Ukraine, even as a volunteer, but Lina dissuades her. The couple are distressed by the pro-war views of their family and wider Russian society.

This was also a theme in three anonymous Russian-made films: Point of the World, Musicians and Uno. Each depicts the reactions of youthful protagonists to the situation, from biting their lip and hypocrisy, to private tears and failed attempts to leave.

One of three films in the main competition, Pussy Boys (Darya Andreyanava and Mikalai Kuprych) follows gay Belarusians. They not only address the camera in private, but also discuss their sexuality publicly in random conversations on buses – a political act in a country where homosexuality is soon to be criminalised, as it is in Russia.

Trailer for Motherland at Artdocfest.

Motherland (Alexander Mihalkovich, Sweden, and Hanna Badziaka, Norway/Ukraine) focuses on a mother investigating her son’s suicide as a result of the bullying of recruits typical in the Soviet and now Belarusian army. The film is a broader reflection on society’s violence, as recruits realise they will be told to shoot protesters. This is set against the protests against the falsified 2020 Belarusian elections, when Alexandr Lukashenko brutally suppressed those demanding he resign in favour of the winning candidate, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.

Tsikhanouskaya’s campaign and the protests are the subject of Accidental President (Mike Lerner and Martin Herring, UK). The film received an emotional reception, with the audience shouting “Zhyve Belarus” (Long live Belarus), the slogan of the protests.

Franak Viačorka, Tsikhanouskaya’s chief political advisor spoke at the festival, necessitating heightened security and illustrating Artdocfest’s importance. Latvia shares a border with Belarus and Russia: these dictatorships are a threat to their neighbours as well their own citizens.

‘Ukraine Above All’

The festival screened five films about Ukraine in its main competition, as well as a special programme entitled Ukraine Above All. Artdocfest has promoted films by and about Ukraine ever since the 2014 illegal annexation of Ukraine, even when it was based in Russia. This was a major reason it had to relocate.

However, a global appetite for Ukrainian documentary films about the war means some of the biggest now head to Sundance or Berlin festivals, achieving wider distribution. Such was the case with the 2024 Oscar-winning 20 Days in Mariupol. Instead, Artdocfest screened films evoking the war indirectly, but no less poignantly.

The Mist (Dmytro Shovkoplias) is an immersive film conveying the confusion and disorientation of suddenly finding yourself caught in a war. Position (Yurii Pupirin) showed the daily tedium of Ukrainian soldiers waiting in trenches, fighting the weather and mud more than the enemy. A Picture to Remember (Olga Chernykh) and A Bit of a Stranger (Svitlana Lishchynska) both reflect on identity and family history, a process triggered by the displacement forced on Ukrainians by Russia’s aggression.

The Artdocfest Riga 2024 showreel.

This same dislocation of up to 10 million people was depicted by winner of the main prize, In the Rearview. Polish director Maciek Hamela filmed the Ukrainian passengers he picked up and ferried to the border as they processed the first days of the war and began their lives as refugees. The documentary evolved from his work as a volunteer driver, as he wanted to document the stories he witnessed. It is a fusion of ethics and aesthetics exemplifying the greatest possibilities of the medium.

British historian and Russia commentator, Mark Galeotti, suggested that one effective way the west could avenge Navalny’s death is by investing in Russian language media. This would offer a different perspective on domestic and world affairs for growing numbers of Russians, realising that their own state is lying to them.

Artdocfest is an important part of that approach, offering an outpost of free expression on Russia’s doorstep. Just as it screened and acclaimed Navalny’s films in life, so the festival continues his legacy, speaking out and amplifying others who do the same.