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13 Oct, 2020 11:55

#Metoo, Moscow style: One of Russia’s biggest & oldest film studios comes under scrutiny for facilitating ‘MosFilm Maniac’

#Metoo, Moscow style: One of Russia’s biggest & oldest film studios comes under scrutiny for facilitating ‘MosFilm Maniac’

Dubbed the “MosFilm Maniac” by liberal media, it seems a so-called film director learned nothing from the Harvey Weinstein case or the recent allegations of workplace harassment in Moscow, as a form of 'MeToo' comes to Russia.

Alongside an upcoming second peak in Covid-19 cases, the Russian capital appears to be experiencing another surge in its equivalent to the Western ‘MeToo' movement, as many actresses have come forward to talk about their experiences of harassment at the hands of fledgling director Rodion Belkov.

The floodgates were opened once again with the help of social media, the impetus of this case being a series of Facebook posts made by the actress Maria Rusanova, who has worked both behind the camera and in front of it. She has been an assistant director and a casting director and is well grounded in the conduct that is expected in the industry.  Her story has been featured extensively on TV Dohzd, the liberal opposition leaning outlet that coined the 'MosFilm Maniac' term. 

Rusanova wrote about her experience of attending a screen test which was conducted by Belkov at the famous MosFilm studios in Moscow. The institution is among the largest and oldest film studios in Europe, and is considered Russia’s answer to Hollywood. It was first established in November of 1920 and its output boasts most of the critically acclaimed Soviet-era films, ranging from works by Andrei Tarkovsky to Sergei Eisenstein (who are widely considered to be the greatest Soviet directors).

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Castings and screen tests are an integral part of an actor’s career and they will often go through several rounds of auditions before being offered a part in a film. Generally, the performer is given a scene or selected lines and actions and instructed to perform them in front of a camera to see if they are suitable for the role. MosFilm has several studio rooms available to rent for castings.

However, this was not a normal screen test, as Rusanova recalls, speaking exclusively to RT: “It is normal to ask to take photos but red lights went off when [Belkov] said that you have to get naked and he and his assistant blocked the door with a table.” Rusanova had intuitively felt that something wasn’t right as soon as she entered the studio but the situation moved rapidly downhill when she refused to remove her clothes.

Belkov flew into a rage when she wouldn’t comply and even attempted to physically strike her. He threatened her, saying, “you will do whatever I tell you, or I will add you to the blacklist and you will never be allowed to [work with] Mosfilm again.”

Luckily, Rusanova managed to escape from the studio room and ran straight to the Mosfilm security desk to ask for help. She explains that “generally they are the ones who deal with any problems.” MosFilm is located on a closed-off territory and official permits are needed to enter the grounds, so they tend to smooth out any security issues internally.

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However, when Rusanova appealed to the security desk for help she was told: “It’s a good thing that you ran away and you should consider yourself lucky as sometimes people pay money to be shot [on camera] in this studio. You’re a lucky girl, go home.” When asked to go with Rusanova to check the studio she had just fled from and to help her to call the police, they refused.

At a loss about what to do next, Rusanova decided to make a post online to warn others about her ordeal. Since making her comments publicly available, hundreds of women have left replies detailing their shared unpleasant experiences of working with Belkov. The women said that many of them were asked for intimate photos, were invited to audition in their own apartments and were generally harassed by the director.

The massive response was a surprise for Rusanova as she explains that she did “not expect that it would go so viral, that there would be so many responses, I’m basically not a confrontational person so I didn’t plan for this at all.”

When asked to comment on his inappropriate behaviour, Belkov categorically denied the harassment charges. “This is all fraud and a lie,” he said in an interview with the online publication Ridus. He went on to claim that Rusanova would not leave the pavilion when she was asked and that “she began to behave inappropriately, insulted the employees of the film company, grabbed other people's things, security documentation, passes to Mosfilm.”

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Many in the professional community do not consider Belkov worthy of the title “director” as his career has amounted to a short film in a student competition and this “degree film” that he has supposedly been attempting to complete for the last ten years. How then did somebody so insignificant manage to lure so many women into his casting trap? Rusanova explains it was only later that she found out about the fact that he had previously been shooting porno scenes and light erotica and that apart from that, he never completed any substantial film.

“He always tried to [take] pictures with famous actresses so that if you Google him it appears like he has connections,” she says. Officially, Belkov had taken some short courses at the Russian State Institute of Cinematography but he never studied there full time, yet he would shoot girls under the guise of shooting a “student” film or a film for his “degree.”

Rusanova has over 3,000 Facebook friends and says that Belkov reached out to about 1,000 of them. “Basically, if he wrote something stupid, like come to tantric yoga or to a porno casting they would refuse. So later he upgraded and started to invite people to his ‘degree film’ a film he has been trying to complete over the last 10 years” she explains.

The actress also hints about the psychological issues at play and refers to an interview by Dozhd in which other girls come forward with their stories. “If previously he showed restraint with his urges now he doesn’t hide it anymore ... so that’s a big change.” She goes on to explain that it is not just Belkov who is to blame here, as “he has a big team behind him and while he would be shooting he’d have another guy writing to new applicants encouraging them to come to the castings.”

Belkov would do paid screen tests to put towards an “actor’s base” alongside holding castings for his “degree film,” which was what Rusanova was invited to audition for. With her own case, Rusanova struggles to directly call it harassment as she had sense enough to refuse him but if the same situation was posed to young and inexperienced actresses, who would be dazzled by Belkov’s name-dropping and promises of greatness, one can well imagine the results.

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Aside from being paid by novice actors and actresses for filming the “actor’s base” screen tests, where Belkov gets his income from is a mystery. It has been suggested that he sells the erotic footage and naked pictures that he takes as porn for the international market, but it is unclear who exactly is behind him or who supports him. According to his profile on Kinonews.ru, he hasn’t directed anything of note since 2018, his last work being a supposed thriller called “Клюква: Vaccinium macrocarpon” (Cranberry: Vaccinium macrocarpon), clips of which could not be found.

Rusanova reiterates that her “reason for posting about this experience was to avoid many young girls or just inexperienced women from going through this, I had a reply from a woman who was like 35 or 40 who works in public relations or a different field and she just wanted to try herself as an actor.” This particular woman was asked by Belkov to bring stockings and “sexy stuff” to the casting which she did as she didn’t know any better.

Rumors about actors having to sleep with directors to get ahead have normalized the expectations surrounding such behaviour and some girls will voluntarily shoot naked as they think that this will lead them to the chance of a lifetime. “It’s not normal to think like this,” Rusanova says. She also expresses how hard it is to go to the police in matters like this as Belkov still has naked photos of a lot of these women in question.

It is a catch-22 that is reminiscent of American model Emily Ratajkowski’s case against a photographer who published a nonconsensual photo book of her nude pictures from an old and very dodgy photoshoot that she did when she first began modelling. Thankfully, Rusanova has no naked photos hanging over her head and so she wasn’t afraid to speak out.

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Rusanova wrote an official letter to Mosfilm explaining her predicament but has received no official apology or explanation beyond the comment of their conducting an “internal review.” They have denied any knowledge of Belkov’s misdemeanours by telling her that “all we know is that he is someone who rents a studio and that he pays the rent on time.” According to Rusanova, Belkov was renting the cheapest of the available studio rooms to hold his castings in.

Her next step is to continue to inform the creative community about these matters and to potentially do something on Instagram. This method has proven effective before, like with the “#Mnye_Nuzhna _Glasnost” (#I_Need_Openness) hashtag that arose in June of last year and was used to bring awareness to the issues of domestic violence and casual sexual harassment that women have to deal with daily. Rusanova plans to do something similar to link the stories of the girls who have been flooding her inbox with their own experiences of harassment over the past few weeks since she made that initial post. She hopes to provide a platform and support network to those who have suffered and in turn make the industry a safer environment to work in.

At this point we are used to hearing about harassment cases involving big names and people in power but it’s even more concerning when somebody with no name to speak of can get away with such indecent behaviour. As Rusanova put it herself in a follow-up Facebook post, “My story is not so scary, the scary thing is that there are so many of them, that is what you should remember.”

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.