A Hollow War
St. Petersburg Times
October 17, 2008
Condoleezza Rice, allegedly, has banned Yury Grymov’s new film, but is it all just a cheap, blog-led PR stunt to drum up publicity?
Local channel 100TV opened its evening newscast on Wednesday last week with a report that Moscow director Yury Grymov’s film Strangers (Chuzhiye) had been banned in the U.S. The film is due for release in November, and critics suggest this “news” was part of the publicity campaign for the film, which kicked off last week. The channel itself was hard pressed to name its source, claiming it arrived by e-mail from a news agency.
“Grymov’s film Strangers has been banned in the U.S.,” said the newscast’s presenter. “Condoleezza Rice’s staff has not recommended it for distribution.”
“Most likely, this has something to do with the anti-American mood of the picture, which would be inappropriate in view of the upcoming presidential elections in America.”
It is unlikely that the station’s claims have any real basis. The U.S. Secretary of State’s purview does not include monitoring either new Russian films or, more to the point, giving recommendations to U.S. film distributors.
The report was, however, in tune with anti-American sentiments in the Russian media, which have been on the rise in the aftermath of the war in Georgia. TV100 did not provide any sources for their report.
The report ended with a fragment of a tape-recorded telephone conversation with Grymov, a TV ad maker turned feature-film director. He described the news as a “surprise.”
“I think this is nonsense, but everything is possible. I don’t know anything about it for certain yet,” he said.
The 100TV report also aroused suspicions because, as a Google News search revealed, there was no mention of the subject, or even of Grymov, in the international media.
100TV editor-in-chief Andrei Radin did not respond to an e-mail inquiry sent on Oct. 9, but when called on his cell phone on Thursday he said he “did not know” the source of the information.
Yekaterina Dodzina, 100TV news editor and the evening newscast presenter (whom Radin referred to), said the news came by e-mail from an agency, although she does not remember the name of the agency.
“We were surprised as well, but we checked it with Grymov and his assistant,” she said by phone on Thursday. However, Dodzina said she did not verify the information with anyone in the U.S. or with U.S. officials.
According to the film’s official website, Strangers is set in a war zone in a third-world country. The plot involves doctors from a U.S. charity organization who become responsible for some terrible crimes as the film unfolds.
“Viewers will see how the American nation tries to instill its morals in another world but at the same time it doesn’t understand one simple thing—there is no such thing as one’s ‘own’ morals. Since morals are one and the same for all,” states the film’s English-language press release.
The news was picked up by several publications, most of them web-based. All of them referred to different sources for their information.
Gazeta.ru quotes the RIA Novy Region news agency, which, in turn, refers to “news agencies that quote Condoleezza Rice’s staff.”
Research has revealed that the news originated on Internet forums and was subsequently cross-posted in several blogs.
Russian entertainment website Life.ru refers directly to “Condoleezza Rice’s staff,” adding that “censorship as such does not exist in American film distribution but in this specific case the U.S. State Department recommended that U.S. film companies not distribute Strangers within [the U.S.].” Life.ru is published by OAO News Media, which also publishes the tabloids Zhizn and Tvoi Den.
The website also added that the U.S. Department of State had previously not recommended Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. In reality, Moore’s film had a general release in the United States in June 2004. It became the highest-grossing documentary of all time on its first weekend in release, taking in $21.8 million.
However, at least two publications soon deleted the news from their websites, although they did not publish corrections or disclaimers. The local edition of Argumenty I Fakty newspaper published an article entitled, “Condoleezza Rice Is Unhappy About Grymov’s Film Strangers,” on its website on Oct. 9. When accessed on Saturday, this page was blank. Cinema website Film.ru also later removed its article on the apparently fake controversy.
But it was in the blogosphere where the story gathered real force. There, the news was reposted dozens of times after the initial report on TV100.
The most persistent blogger on this front was Alexander Korsunov, who writes under the nickname “jordan_korsun.” Korsunov uploaded the video link from 100TV to the popular Livejournal.com community “ru_politics,” and he was especially active in responding to the comments and misgivings of other bloggers. In several postings, he corroborated the veracity of the report, claiming that American film distributors obey the recommendations of the U.S. State Department.
Research on the web has shown that Korsunov works in public relations and has himself been involved in the blogosphere advertising campaign for Strangers.
On Livejournal.com, the business offer that Korsunov made to Ruslan Paushu, who blogs under the nickname “goblin-gaga,” was found.
“Do you remember how you and I tried to launch a campaign against Ukraine over the ‘gas war,’” Korsunov wrote to Paushu on Sept. 30.
“I want to invite you to take part in a PR campaign [in the blogosphere]. Grymov is releasing a new film, Strangers, about American doctors, Arabs, and the Russian military. The film is patriotic and ideological, especially in connection with the [war in] South Ossetia. […] If [you’re] interested, please write to [inform me] about your conditions […] and come to the pre-release screening.”
Last year, Paushu was identified by Vedomosti newspaper as one of two bloggers who launched an infamous advertising campaign for Utkonos, a Moscow store chain. Several popular Livejournal.com bloggers almost simultaneously made similar postings advertising the chain.
Dozens of popular bloggers were caught placing Utkonos ads in their postings. According to Vedomosti, Paushu said the postings were commissioned by an advertising agency that he declined to identify. He added that bloggers are usually paid $50 to $300 for covert product placements in their blogs.
In a posting to another blogger (the deleted comment is available in the cache of search engines), Korsunov confessed that there was a budget for advertising Strangers in the blogosphere.
“There is a budget for PR, not especially large, but I think the stance of the film is close to yours and you’ll find it interesting,” he wrote.
Further research showed that the news originated in two places, a Canadian website (where it was later deleted) and an Arabic-language forum. There, the report, which had apparently been translated into Arabic from Russian by a computer program, was still available as of Thursday. In another discussion on Livejournal.com, which took place on the afternoon of Oct. 8, several hours before the 100TV evening newscast, Korsunov referred to the Arabic version as the “original.”
Korsunov first achieved a modicum of fame in 2005, when, as a 22-year-old student, he launched the website Skaji.net. Now defunct, it was described as a source of political news independent from the Kremlin. “Information is the first step toward democracy,” he said in an interview with The Moscow Times at the time.
Film critic Stanislav Zelvensky, who writes for Afisha, arguably Russia’s leading listings magazine, said the news that Grymov’s film had been banned in the U.S. could easily be part of the film’s advertising campaign.
“When I first saw, or rather read this [on the web], I thought it was an advertising campaign,” he said. “It looks like a publicity stunt.”
Zelvensky said film companies occasionally hire bloggers to advertise a movie, but more often their own publicists do the work.
“I’ve read all this, but it’s not clear who was paid and who was not,” he said.
“Actually, they do not pay many people. Usually, it’s someone who works for the film company itself. This person launches a blog, or starts to write to Internet film communities about what a wonderful film it is.
“To put it crudely, there is a girl on salary who sits and types postings to endless numbers of silly [Live Journal] communities. ‘Such-and-such a film is being released, and I would love to see it. Guys, do you know what it’s about?’”
However, such stunts like the one probably used to advertise Strangers help film companies economize on their advertising budgets, according to Zelvensky.
“It’s clear that there’s a certain advertising budget in any case, and a portion of it can go to blogs,” he said.
“But it’s more effective when some copywriters come up with something like this, and it spreads all by itself, and then, when you realize that it’s fake, it’s already all over the place.”