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Jurij Halajko (Polish Academy of Sciences)

From virtual presence to real impact: a case study of Ukrainian “Kinopereklad” social movement

Until 2006 there was almost no possibility for watching films in cinemas with Ukrainian dubbing or subtitles: all the Western movies for Ukrainian market were translated into Russian, the same way as it was in the times of the Soviet Union. In the USSR foreign movies were dubbed in Russian since the 1930s, while subtitling was barely used. One reason of this was high illiteracy rate that prevented from using subtitles. Another reason was that, most obviously, dubbing provided greater opportunity for censorship. Finally, the use of Russian dubbing was an important means of promoting linguistic homogeneity. Therefore the practice of Russian film dubbing persisted until the end of Soviet Union. One would expect that after Ukraine became independent, it would introduce its language in movie theaters. However, due to particular economic and political reasons this did not happen.

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union the state system of film distribution completely collapsed. Movie theaters were either given to disposition of local authorities or privatized, yet there was no sources left from which they could order new film copies. On the other hand, cinemas faced devastating competition from counterfeit video industry. Therefore, many of them were closed and turned into more profitable businesses like night clubs or discos. In early nineties the level of intellectual piracy in Ukraine and other former Soviet countries was so high that American Motion Pictures Association imposed an embargo on export of Hollywood films to this part of the world. The sale of American films to Ukraine, Russia and other CIS countries was permitted only after they introduced proper copyright laws. In Ukraine such regulations were ready by 1995. However, by that time the country was left virtually without its own cinema infrastructure.

In Russia the cinematographic industry suffered similar decline. Nevertheless, due to larger market and better economic situation, Russian companies could build their private cinema chains easier. Those companies, usually Moscow-based, were often run by people who were in cinematographic industry back at the times of the USSR and therefore had extensive knowledge of the field as well as personal contacts. Hence, it was not difficult for Russians to became private distributors of foreign film studios productions and to convince their partners that they were to represent them in the CIS region. This way Russian companies gained an advantage in the film distribution sector and successfully expanded to the markets of newly independent states. Thus, Ukrainian cinema chains had to purchase film copies from local subsidiaries and branches of Russian film distributors. The later treated Ukraine as an internal market and therefore supplied film copies with Russian dubbing. By this means, Russian dubbing once again became a tool of linguistic homogenization, this time for economic reasons.

In 1998 Ukrainian parliament passed a law „On cinematography“. The bill requires that foreign movies must have been dubbed, voiced over or supplied with subtitles in Ukrainian prior to their distribution. Nevertheless, this requirement was not put into practice until recently. Film distributors avoided translation of soundtracks into Ukrainian by referring to the right of dubbing or subtitling film copies in minority languages, granted by the law. This was clearly an intentional misinterpretation of the law. However, under Leonid Kuchma presidency Ukrainian language was never a priority issue. Kuchma himself, being a person with a Soviet cultural background, could not care less for promotion of Ukrainian beyond the sphere of ritual use. Besides, the push for expansion of the use of Ukrainian would bring a hostile reaction from Russia. A change in cultural policy came only after the Orange Revolution, with a change of Ukrainian leadership. In January 2006 the government set a requirement that from September that year, 20 percent of film copies had to be translated into Ukrainian. The share of film copies with Ukrainian dubbing or subtitles was supposed to reach 70 percent by July 2007. The governmental decision met a furious reaction from the cinematographic lobby. Only few distributors of the American major studios began to translate some of the films into Ukrainian. Other distributors, the self-proclaimed „independent“ ones (those that were mainly a subsidiaries or close partners of the Russian companies), refused to supply the cinemas with the films translated into Ukrainian. Instead they kept on supplying films with Russian dubbing, arguing that providing movies with Ukrainian translation had no market perspectives. They had also launched a media campaign, the main message of which was that the use of Ukrainian would damaged the cinema business and that Ukrainian was unsuitable for films dubbed in („backward“, „nationalistic“, „unnatural“ and „ridiculous“ is just a few adjectives that were used). Finally, the Association for Promotion of Ukrainian Cinematography had taken the issue to a court, the verdict of which was that the governmental decision on quotas for films with Ukrainian translation was unlawful. Thus, the subsidiaries of Russian film distribution companies decided that they were not obliged to supply films with Ukrainian dubbing.

At the same time, in reaction to the position of those distributors, there emerged an Internet-based social network aimed at promotion of movies translated into Ukrainian and protecting the rights of Ukrainians to watch films in their native language. Its activists promoted watching the movies only with Ukrainian dubbing or subtitles and boycotting the titles which were not translated into their native language. One of the first things to do was to demonstrate that there is a substantial demand for films dubbed in Ukrainian. This was done with the use of special pledge page, set on PledgeBank.com resource: those who joined it promised not to go to theaters to watch movies translated in Russian in case more than 1000 people would do the same. During two months the pledge collected more than 5000 signatures, which is quite a large number for rather apathetic and inert Ukrainian society. Second, a dedicated „Kino-pereklad.org.ua“ web page was created. Among other things, it informed about availability of releases in Ukrainian. Initially there was a very limited number of these, being supplied by a few distributors that did not question the reason of dubbing movies in Ukrainian. There was also a link to Google Group on the issue, were the activists discussed the ways of promoting the idea of translating movies into Ukrainian as well as developing strategies to resist the pro-Russian cinematographic lobby. The activities included petitions to the governmental agencies and major film studios, picketing, flash mob performances, sticker campaigns and conventional media promotion of the campaign (giving interviews to newspapers, participating on TV and radio talk-shows). The campaign successfully contributed to social awareness of the issue and created a social pressure on Russian film distribution lobby. As a result, the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture signed a voluntary agreement with film distribution firms, in which they agreed to supply a share of films with Ukrainian translation. The activists of „Kino-pereklad“ campaign participated in writing the draft of memorandum. Hence, a social and cultural change was possible due to the coincidental play of different interests, that included cultural, political (as well as geopolitical) and business ones. Still, without the pressure from grassroots activity group, it would be difficult if ever possible to solve the issue. Nowadays the common perception of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution that it failed. However if we look at the spread of new ways of political communication and grassroots activities following the Ukrainian presidential elections of 2004, we can see that this revolution nevertheless brought some positive changes.