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September 8, 2023 1:06 pm

Israel-Russia Film Production Deal Hit With Heavy Criticism Amid Ukraine War


avatar by Shiryn Ghermezian

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a news conference. Photo: Reuters/Sergei Bobylyov

The Biden administration, the Ukrainian Embassy in Israel, and members of the Israeli entertainment industry, among others, have criticized the Jewish state for signing an agreement on joint film production with Russia on Wednesday as the Russian military continues its ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

Sharon Levi, managing director of Tel Aviv-based producer and distributor Yes Studios, told The Algemeiner on Thursday that Israel’s new filmmaking agreement with Russia is poorly timed.

“Understanding that these discussions have been ongoing for several years, I would expect our government officials, aware of the current situation in Ukraine, to have put on hold any collaboration initiatives with Russia,” said Levi, whose production company is behind some of Israel’s biggest shows such as Fauda, Your Honor and The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem.

Levi added that Israel “in general, and the entertainment industry in particular, are known for our global creative partnerships. As such, with the understandable strength of international feeling, we should be standing alongside those creative allies that help take our stories and content to the world.”

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More than 50 representatives from the Israeli film industry signed an open letter on Thursday calling the agreement with Russia “shameful.”

“We, Israeli filmmakers, consider the cooperation agreement signed by the Minister of Culture of the Russian Federation and the Israeli Ambassador to the Russian Federation as shameful. It is devoid of moral legitimation and meaning; we will in no way cooperate with the film production of an authoritarian country,” read the open letter initiated by Israeli writer and screenwriter Ilan Sheinfeld, according to the Russian-language news agency Vesty.

“We want to express our solidarity with our Ukrainian filmmaking colleagues who are suffering from this barbaric attack, and we expect and hope that all Israeli filmmakers will do the same with regard to this immoral document of cooperation,” the letter’s signatories added.

The letter’s signatories include Oscar-winning director Guy Nativ (Golda,Tatami), among others.

The bilateral cooperation agreement was inked by Russian Culture Minister Olga Lyubimova and Israel’s Ambassador to Russia Alexander Ben Zvi at a ceremony on Wednesday. Lyubimova said that Israel first initiated the collaboration in 2009 and that it has been in the works for 15 years.

“I know how much the professional community has been waiting for this document, and how useful it will be for joint work,” Lyubimova noted during the signing ceremony. “There are a lot of plans ahead, and I am sure this agreement will help take our joint work to a new level.”

The Russian minister added in a post on the social media platform Telegram: “Now colleagues from Russia and Israel can exchange experiences, create films together, and work with film archives. We look forward to seeing Israeli filmmakers in the competition programs of our international film festivals and in public discussions. We are also preparing to expand the distribution capabilities of Russian-Israeli films.”

Ben Zvi said, “I’m sure there will be a lot of joint films. Producers are interested in sharing experiences with each other. Israeli films are very strong and shot at a high level. The Russian public will be able to appreciate them.”

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, many international film companies suspended business with Russia,  including Netflix, Disney, WarnerMedia, Amazon, Sony, Paramount, and Universal Pictures. The country’s representatives continue to be banned from some international events, including film festivals like Cannes and the Eurovision Song Contest.

A day before the agreement was signed, Russian President Vladimir Putin accused “Western curators” of putting “an ethnic Jew” as Ukraine’s president, referring to Volodymyr Zelensky, to “cover up the anti-human essence” of modern Ukraine. He further claimed Zelensky “is covering up the glorification of Nazism and those who led the Holocaust in Ukraine.”

The Ukrainian Embassy in Israel expressed outrage over the signing of Israel’s film production agreement with Russia.

“On the very same day when a Russian rocket struck a crowded market in the Donetsk region of Ukraine, killing and injuring dozens of innocent civilians, the Israeli government signed a cooperation agreement in the field of cinema with the Russian propaganda perpetrators,” the embassy wrote on Facebook. “Russia is sanctioning its attacks in Ukraine on a daily basis and robbing the lives of innocent people [and] Israel cooperates with this brutal country, known for its cinematic efforts aimed at spreading war propaganda.”

The embassy asked why Israel is “offering more platforms to the aggressive country to spread its toxic ideas,” and called on the Israeli government to focus its attention “on the injustice done by the Russian leadership is the right course of action, rather than signing dubious agreements with them.”

A spokesperson for the US State Department told Axios on Friday there are concerns over alleged funding by the Russian Ministry of Culture of antisemitic propaganda in Ukraine and questions regarding Russia’s trustworthiness as an ally. The spokesperson also pointed out the fact that Lyubimova is sanctioned by the US, European Union, and the Ministry of Culture in Canada due to Russia’s war on Ukraine.

“We discourage official cooperation between other countries and Russia, especially Russian individuals who are sanctioned like the Minister of Culture,” the spokesperson said. “Russia is not a trustworthy ally. The Kremlin creates and spreads disinformation in an attempt to manipulate people about Russia’s real actions against Ukraine and elsewhere that are designed to destabilize and weaken sovereign nations.”

Anna Zharova, co-founder and CEO of the Israeli-Ukrainian Alliance, wrote on Facebook that the agreement comes “in the midst of a full-scale war, where a terrorist country with a dictatorial regime invaded the territory of an independent state, and in which cinema and theater today became the main instruments of fascist propaganda?”

“Have our Ministry of Culture and Foreign Affairs completely lost their minds?!” she added, while also calling for the deal to be frozen.

Ukrainian-born Israeli human rights activist Natan Sharansky — who spent nine years as a political prisoner in the Soviet Union and was a minister in four Israeli governments — told Haaretz, “Why would a democratic Israel be interested in cooperating with the Russian propaganda machine?”

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