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Kremlin’s propaganda film about Ukraine war flops as Russians watch Barbie instead

Ryan Gosling as Ken and Margot Robbie as Barbie (Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures/© 2023 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved)
Ryan Gosling as Ken and Margot Robbie as Barbie (Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures/© 2023 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved)

Russia’s first feature-length film about its invasion of Ukraine is playing to near empty cinemas as the nation sources pirate copies of Barbie starring Margot Robbie instead.

The Witness has become a two-hour box office flop after depicting president Volodymyr Zelensky’s men as violent neo-Nazis who torture and kill their own people.

With a budget of 200 million roubles (£1.5m), it has grossed less than 14 million roubles (£110,000) since August 17 with viewers across the country reporting empty cinema halls.

For some in the country, the pink alternate universe of Barbie starring Robbie in the lead role and Ryan Gosling as Ken has provided a welcome escape.

While Warner Bros, producer of the hit US film, pulled out of the country shortly after war started, Russians have found creative ways to work around American copyrights laws, finding bootleg copies of the film that are then screened at pop-up cinemas.

Some cinemas sell visitors tickets to little-known Russian short films and then show the pirated Barbie movie during the previews.

Posters for the The Witness as people stand at ticket machines in a cinema lobby in Moscow (AP)
Posters for the The Witness as people stand at ticket machines in a cinema lobby in Moscow (AP)

In an attempt to discourage the Barbie craze, Russia’s culture ministry on Thursday said that it won’t issue special permission to pirate copyrights to the movie, as the film was “not in line with the goals set by our president to strengthen the spiritual and traditional values of our citizens”.

The Witness’s plot centres on a fictional character called Daniel Cohen, an esteemed Belgian violinist, who arrives in Kyiv to perform in February 2022, days before Vladimir Putin’s troops invade.

As Russia launches its war, Cohen gets caught up in the fighting, witnessing a series of “inhuman crimes and bloody provocations by Ukrainian nationalists”, according to the movie’s premise.

At one point, a Zelensky commander is seen walking around with a copy of Mein Kampf, while other Ukrainian soldiers pledge their allegiance to Adolf Hitler.

As witness to these unspeakable horrors, Cohen sets out to tell the world the “truth” about the conflict.

In Moscow, one cinema-goer Alexei wasn’t sure if he had entered the right auditorium as he put down the popcorn and plunged into his chair to see The Witness.

The room was dark and quiet, with only three other audience members scattered across the large Moscow theatre that could fit more than 100 people.

“I had seen all the other movies already and had a free evening, so decided just to check it out,” Alexei said, requesting that his surname be withheld for security reasons.

“When I got to the theatre room, I thought the viewing [had] ended because it was so empty.”

A ticket machine with a poster of The Witness in Moscow (AP)
A ticket machine with a poster of The Witness in Moscow (AP)

Ivan Philippov, creative executive at AR Content, the production company of the renowned film producer Alexander Rodnyansky, said: “Russians get force-fed propaganda everywhere they go – on state television, on the street, in schools and universities.

“It is no surprise people don’t want to spend their own money to see more of the same.”

Opinion polls have consistently shown that many in Russia have preferred to turn a blind eye to the war in Ukraine.

According to one last month by the Levada Centre, Russia’s only independent pollster, a record 40 per cent of Russians said they do not actively follow the events in Ukraine, while only 23 per cent of respondents said they “closely followed” the fighting.

“Many want to see movies that allow them to forget for a moment what really is going on, forget about the gloom and doom of the news from Ukraine,” said Philippov.

“The last thing they want is to be reminded of the war.”