Paul Moreira, a French filmmaker, is famous for hard-hitting investigations that show viewers “what the authorities don’t want you to see.” So French-speaking reporters working in Ukraine were curious to see how he’d treat this country in “The Masks of the Revolution” – shown on Monday on the popular Canal+ network, Gulliver Cragg wrote for Kyiv Post.
My colleagues and I were appalled by what we saw. The film relies on gross simplifications, misunderstandings and sheer deception, all geared towards defending a thesis familiar to viewers of Russian networks: that the far-right in Ukraine is out of control.
But Moreira was not working for RT (aka Russia Today) and can hardly be suspected of taking Russian money. I think he genuinely believed in his theory… And that’s why the film is perhaps worth some attention even beyond the French-speaking world.
I can’t enumerate all the errors, lies and manipulations in the film here – I hope Stop Fake are preparing a special edition for that – but to give you an idea of the flavour, the film starts by suggesting that while life for Maidan supporters was happy ever after as soon as Yanukovych fled Mezhyhirya, Crimeans freely voted in a genuine referendum and “Crimea is now Russian”.
The ‘little green men’ don’t get a mention… Indeed, it’s what the film leaves out, or skims over in a couple of minutes, that makes it really so distorting: principally the war in Donbass. The conflict is, after all, the reason Ukraine’s volunteer battalions exist… And also the reason the mainstream media’s attention quickly moved on from the killings in Odessa on 2 May 2014.
Moreira imputes this instead to some kind of omertà. He seems to think Odessa was under-reported because pro-Russians died and Ukrainian nationalists were at fault. Actually he mostly just calls pro-Russian Ukrainians “Russian” or “Russian-speaking”, to sustain a convenient ethnic narrative. He doesn’t seem to have noticed that most of the Ukrainian nationalists interviewed in the film speak Russian.
Then there are the blatant manipulations. A tiny rally by the nationalist Svoboda party is accompanied by commentary about Ukrainians’ economic woes, suggesting that these are pushing up the party’s poll ratings. But he doesn’t actually present those poll ratings, because – annoyingly – they don’t fit his assumptions.
I could go on. It is hard not to feel angry while watching this film, and Moreira’s extraordinary reaction to the ensuing criticism. On French radio on Monday the director suggested that Benoit Vitkine, the main Ukraine specialist at Le Monde, had written a piece attacking the film in order to curry favour with the Ukrainian authorities, for fear of losing his accreditation otherwise.
To suggest such motives on the part of someone who has risked not only his future accreditations but his life in reporting from separatist-held areas, is simply outrageous.
But it’s also a good moment to stop just being outraged and look instead at how Moreira’s misconceptions stem from the failings of the Ukrainian government.
Paul Moreira believes (or at least, thinks his audience will believe) that reporters in Ukraine risk being banned from the country because in September three BBC correspondents featured on a banned list. This appears to have been a mistake, and they were swiftly removed. But the damage was done.
The Ukrainian authorities acknowledge readily that they are in an information war in order to justify projects such as the Ministry of Information Policy and Ukraine Today – and yet they fail to realise the huge harm done to the country’s image by taking anti-democratic measures such as restricting media access.
Or, moreover, by naming a suspected neo-Nazi, Vadim Troyan, to be police chief in Kyiv region in Autumn 2014. Or appointing the Right Sector leader Dmytro Yarosh an official Defence Ministry adviser. Or allowing the Azov battalion, now integrated into the National Guard, to use the Wolfsangel symbol on their logo. Or failing, as Moreira points out in his documentary, to punish any Ukrainian nationalists for their role in the Odessa tragedy.
Whatever the reasons behind them, decisions like these are PR disasters for Kyiv. It is they, as much as Russian propaganda, that have fueled a perception of Ukraine as a country where the far right have too much influence. Apparently, Petro Poroshenko and Arseniy Yatsenyuk don’t understand this. If they did, there is no way the President would have told the BBC that Vadim Troyan was “a hero”, or that the Prime Minister would have even considered allowing the neo-Nazi Andriy Biletsky to be a candidate for his People’s Front party.
Clearly, far-right groups do exist in Ukraine and have influence, and some weapons. This should be a cause for concern and it is a legitimate topic for foreign reporters. It is not Moreira’s original intention of making a film about this that is at fault, but the way he did it. Yet officials routinely refuse to discuss this issue and put it in its proper place and context. This all contributes to the sensation Moreira says he felt “of being deceived”… And leads people like him to blow things out of proportion and leave the public even more deceived.
Ukraine’s leaders and media should engage with this issue and encourage a national debate. How do we define far-right? Where does patriotism end and bigotry begin? Where do we draw the line between activist and extremist? Politicians should be addressing these questions and speaking out against those whose views are not compatible with the European values Ukraine claims to espouse. And, crucially, they should be heard doing so on foreign media.
If this film just further fuels Ukrainians’ indignation and sense of self-righteousness, (as one can see in, for example, a petition launched on Avaaz that suggested, with no evidence whatsoever, that it was Russian-funded) then it will do even more damage here than it may do to public opinion in France. If it leads Ukrainians to ask the right questions, but to come up with the right answers instead of just gross simplistic assumptions as Moreira does, it could even prove to have been useful.
By Gulliver Cragg, Kyiv Post
Gulliver Cragg is a correspondent for France 24, covering Ukraine, Poland and Belarus. He lives in Kyiv