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KYIV — For Ukrainians, this year’s Oscars left a bitter taste in the mouth.
For the second time in two years, the Academy did not grant Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s wish to speak to the assembled Hollywood A-listers and millions of viewers. Why? Because it says it wants to stay out of politics.
And yet Chinese actor Donnie Yen, who has ties to the Chinese Communist Party, was allowed to present an award, despite a public backlash.
Worst of all, however, was “Navalny” — about the poisoning and imprisonment of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny — winning the Oscar for best documentary ahead of the Ukrainian co-production “House of Splinters,” which is about an orphanage that was destroyed by Russian forces. Navalny may be a hero to many in Russia but he does not hold the same position in Ukraine.
“We really wanted to give a little joy to Ukrainians in these difficult times. We should have won not because we are from Ukraine, but because the film is deep, valuable and talentedly directed by the Danish director Simon Lereng Vilmont and made by a cool team,” Azad Safarov, the second director of “House of Splinters,” said in a statement.
“But … we got proof once again that Russian propaganda works very well and knows how to promote pseudo-heroes where there are no heroes. So we still have a lot of work to do,” he added.
During his acceptance speech, “Navalny” director Daniel Roher, who is Canadian, blasted Vladimir Putin and said that Navalny remains in prison for what he called the Russian president’s “unjust war of aggression in Ukraine.”
“Alexei, the world has not forgotten your vital message to us all. We cannot, we must not be afraid to oppose dictators and authoritarianism,” Roher said.
However, Navalny’s wife Yulia also made a speech from the Oscars stage, saying that she was “dreaming about the day … our country will be free.”
Ukrainians were upset at having missed out and made jokes about Navalny’s family and team posing glamorously in Los Angeles.
“Navalny earned his Oscar as he played a Russian opposition figure pretty well,” Ukrainian standup comedian Anton Tymoshenko joked on social media.
And Oksana Romaniuk, executive director of the Institute for Mass Information, a think tank, said in a Facebook post that she did not believe giving an Oscar to a film about Navalny will change anything in Russia.
“Navalny,” produced by HBO Max and CNN Films, tells the story of the opposition leader who led a growing political movement against Putin, was almost killed by a nerve agent and then returned to Moscow despite the threat of arrest. He’s now languishing in a Russian prison.
However, Ukrainians can’t forget Navalny’s nationalistic claims about Russian minorities, his stance that “Crimea is not a sandwich to give back and forth,” as well as his participation in ultra-nationalist marches in Russia in the 2000s.
The movie does touch on Navalny’s nationalist views and his dalliance with far-right forces, but it’s not enough for many Ukrainians aghast at Navalny’s stance on the 2014 occupation of Crimea.
Journalist Christo Grozev from online investigative project Bellingcat, who helped the Russian opposition figure investigate the assassination attempt against him, told POLITICO in February that Navalny “has evolved from an opportunistic populist to a staunch democrat with liberal democratic values.” However, Navalny’s stance on Crimea remained unclear until last month, when he made a statement saying Russia must respect the internationally recognized borders of Ukraine.
“What are Ukraine’s borders? They are similar to Russia’s — they’re internationally recognized and defined in 1991. Russia also recognized these borders back then, and it must recognize them today as well. There is nothing to discuss here,” Navalny said in a tweet in February.
Many in the West see Navalny and Ukrainians as allies in the fight against Putin. However, the Russian opposition has repeatedly pushed the narrative that the Kremlin, and only the Kremlin, is responsible for the war, rather than Russia as a nation.
If the Oscars “is outside of politics, how should we understand the documentary manifesto Navalny where internal Russian politics is overflowing?” Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to the head of Ukraine’s president’s office, said in a tweet.
And if the Oscars are to be viewed “out of the context of the war in Ukraine & the mass genocide of Ukrainians, why do you constantly talk about humanism & justice?” he added.