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Russian propaganda film to be screened in Italy despite backlash

A Kremlin’s propaganda film about the Ukraine war which completely flopped at the box office in Russia last year is now scheduled to be screened in Italy by the end of the month, despite sparking a huge backlash.

“The Witness”, Russia’s first feature-length film about the invasion of Ukraine, tells the fictional story of Daniel Cohen, a Belgian violinist who gets caught up in the conflict after a trip to Kyiv and witnesses terrible crimes committed by Ukrainian nationalists in the village of Semidveri. He then decides to make it his mission to tell the world the “truth” about what’s happening in Ukraine.

The film is, essentially, a collection of many of the Kremlin’s lies used to justify the illegal invasion of Ukraine packaged in a 2-hour war film. Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin have long pointed to the need to “denazify” Ukraine as one of the main reasons to invade Russia’s neighbour.

When the film was released across the country in August 2023, Russians didn’t exactly flock to the cinema to watch it, and the film was generally considered to be a flop at the box office, grossing less than 14 million roubles (€142,000) in its first two weeks, as reported by The Guardian.

But if the Russian propaganda film appears to have failed to conquer viewers at home, “The Witness” is now hoping to catch more eyeballs in Italy – at least among those who have never really turned their back on Putin.

The controversial screening in Bologna

The film is scheduled to be screened on the evening of 27 January – the same day as the International Holocaust Remembrance Day – in the traditionally liberal and left-leaning city of Bologna. “The Witness” will be shown at a cultural centre called Villa Paradiso at an event attended by Vincenzo Lorusso of the pro-Russia organisation Donbas Italy and pro-Kremlin journalist Andrea Lucidi.

The Facebook post announcing the screening on the cultural centre’s social media page was inundated by critical comments from users accusing the venue of hosting a hateful, pro-Russian propaganda event. Asked for an explanation from a user, the centre said they host several “diverse initiatives.”

Users accused the centre of deleting some of the most scathing comments, including some referring to the UN resolution condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Some accused the centre of using ideas of democracy and freedom of speech to justify “the spread of terror and pro-Russian, fascist propaganda.”

Despite the condemnation by city officials, who called the screening of the film in a building receiving public funds “unacceptable” and have asked organisers to cancel the event, “The Witness” is scheduled to be shown on 27 January as planned.

According to the Villa Paradiso cultural centre, the order to cancel the event violates people’s “right to inform themselves freely” about the conflict in Ukraine. In response to the city officials’ request, Villa Paradiso insisted they were not violating any law by showing the film.

Should the event be cancelled, the far-right group National Movement Patriots Network has offered to host a screening of “The Witness”. 

Euronews contacted officials in Bologna and Villa Paradiso for comment.

“The Witness” tours Italy

The planned screening in Bologna would not be the first time that “The Witness” is shown in Italy after having been aired in Rome, Florence, Reggio Emilia, Cesena and other cities across the country in the past couple of months.

In Rome, the screening of the film was preceded by a video message recorded by the actor who plays the main character, Karen Badalov. In the video, Badalov addresses the Italian public and talks of his love for Italy and the country’s cinema, while saying he hopes viewers would identify with his character.

He complains about the trailer of the film being blocked on YouTube, saying that freedom of speech was “a thing of the past” and praising the public in Rome for being an exception to the censorship surrounding “The Witness.” 

More Russian propaganda in Italy

Another pro-Russian propaganda event, a conference about the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, is scheduled to go ahead in the city of Modena on 20 January, despite calls to cancel it. The presentation of the event portrays Mariupol as “the city which symbolised Donbass’ revolt against Kyiv” which is now being rebuilt by Russia.

Among the scheduled speakers at the conference is the president of the Italy-Russia Association Luca Rossi, Russian consul Dmitry Shtodin and journalist Andrea Lucidi, who is also attending the screening of “The Witness” in Bologna.

Modena’s centre-left mayor Giancarlo Muzzarelli has distanced himself from the event in a statement where he says the town doesn’t support in any way “initiatives offering a pro-Russian interpretation of the war in Ukraine.” 

The event is still scheduled to go ahead.