Alexei wasn’t sure if he had entered the right cinema auditorium as he put down the popcorn and plunged into his chair. The room was dark and quiet, with only three other audience members scattered across the large Moscow theatre that could fit more than 100 people.
It was a Friday evening and Alexei had come to see The Witness, Russia’s first feature-length film about its invasion of Ukraine that premiered across the country on 17 August.
The Witness centres on a fictional character called Daniel Cohen, an esteemed Belgian violinist who arrives in Kyiv to perform in February 2022, days before Russian troops entered Ukraine.
As Russia launches its war, Cohen gets caught up in the fighting, witnessing a series of “inhuman crimes and bloody provocations by Ukrainian nationalists”, according to the movie’s premise.
At one point, a Ukrainian commander is seen walking around with a copy of Mein Kampf, while other Ukrainian soldiers pledge their allegiance to Adolf Hitler. As a witness to these unspeakable horrors, Cohen sets out to tell the world the “truth” about the conflict.
In two hours of screen time, the film covers a wide spectrum of falsehoods that the Kremlin has used to justify its invasion of Ukraine. On the eve of the invasion, Vladimir Putin said Moscow had to “denazify” its neighbour, the lie that Ukraine was infiltrated by dangerous “Nazis”.
The release of The Witness comes on the back of plans announced by the Russian authorities to boost the production of movies glorifying Moscow’s actions in Ukraine.
But The Witness is a box-office flop. Set to a budget of 200 million roubles (£1.5m), it has grossed less than 14 million roubles (£110,000) in its first two weeks, with viewers across the country reporting empty cinema halls.
“I had seen all the other movies already and had a free evening, so decided just to check it out,” Alexei said, requesting that his surname be withheld for security reasons. “When I got to the theatre room, I thought the viewing [had] ended because it was so empty.”
As the Russian authorities ramp up their war rhetoric at home, movies like The Witness raise questions about just how effective Russian propaganda films actually are.
“Russians get force-fed propaganda everywhere they go – on state television, on the street, in schools and universities,” said Ivan Philippov, creative executive at AR Content, the production company of the renowned film producer Alexander Rodnyansky.
“It is no surprise people don’t want to spend their own money to see more of the same,” he added.
Opinion polls have consistently shown that many in Russia have preferred to turn a blind eye to the war in Ukraine. According to a poll published last month by the Levada Center, Russia’s only independent pollster, a record 40% of Russians said they do not actively follow the events in Ukraine, while only 23% of respondents said they “closely followed” the fighting.
“Many want to see movies that allow them to forget for a moment what really is going on, forget about the gloom and doom of the news from Ukraine,” said Philippov.
“The last thing they want is to be reminded of the war.”
A closed Kremlin study cited last week by the Brief telegram channel similarly said that sociologists concluded that Russian society largely wished to ignore the war in Ukraine.
Russia has a long history under Putin of pushing propaganda-style films. Shortly after Moscow illegally annexed Crimea, the county’s culture ministry financed the movie Crimea which justified the seizure of the peninsula. Its creators said the idea for the film came directly from Sergei Shoigu, the defence minister.
Not much later, a state-sponsored romantic comedy The Crimean Bridge – about the Kerch Bridge, Putin’s prestige project – was written by Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of the government-funded RT network. Just like The Witness, both films were box-office disasters and received scathing reviews from independent critics.
“Z culture simply lacks talented people,” said the veteran culture critic Mikhail Kozyrev, using a popular term to refer to creatives who have rallied around the Russian pro-war Z symbol.
Ever since the start of Russia’s war in Ukraine, hundreds of prominent film-makers, writers and singers have left the country, an exodus that has drawn parallels with the 1922 Soviet philosophers’ ships – boats that carried some of Russia’s leading intellectuals into exile.
“The level and professionalism of the artists that decided to stay in Russia and work with the state is low,” Kozyrev said. “And the viewers can feel when a movie is made on orders by the state. It just isn’t authentic.”
For some in the country, the pink alternate universe of Barbie has provided a welcome escape. While Warner Bros, the producer of the hit US film Barbie, pulled out of the country shortly after the war started, Russians have found creative ways to work around American copyrights laws, finding bootleg copies of the film that are then screened at pop-up cinemas. Some cinemas sell visitors tickets to little-known Russian short films and then show the pirated Barbie movie during the previews.
In an attempt to discourage the Barbie craze, Russia’s culture ministry on Thursday said that it won’t issue special permission to pirate copyrights to the movie, as the film was “not in line with the goals set by our president to strengthen the spiritual & traditional values of our citizens”.