The Moscow International Film Festival is one of the oldest in the world. For the first time it was held in 1935 with Sergei Eisenstein as chairman of the Jury. Nevertheless the Festival history is usually traced back to 1959, when it became a regular event. It is noteworthy that the Festival was reborn in the 1960s during the so called “period of thaw”, when film industry experienced an influx of filmmakers of a new generation whose spiritual experience was shaped by the great victory over fascism. In 1959 the opening ceremony of the first “thaw” Festival was held in the grand Palace of Sports in Luzhniki, Moscow. Chronologically this event coincided with more than the renunciation of the totalitarian path by the leaders of the country, which had only recently been cut off from the West by the Iron Curtain. In the early 1960s Russian cinema alongside world cinema experienced a period of renewal; competition and out-of-competition programs of the MIFF featured the names of foreign filmmakers who re-invented the very notion of cinema in their works, who renounced classical forms, rejected acknowledged classical masters. And incidentally, sometimes they made use of the practices of “renunciation” tested by Soviet filmmakers of the 1920s.
It goes without saying that not all the innovators whose works overwhelmed the Cannes and Venice in the 1960s found their way to the Moscow festival venues, but MIFF programs of the early 1960s carried the names of Federico Fellini, Valerio Zurlini, Kaneto Shindo. The Festival was attended by well-known stars of the time like Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor, Peter Finch, Toshiro Mifune, Richard Burton, Anna Karina, Simone Signoret, Jean Marais, Yves Montand. Among the Festival guests were numerous film classics who used the new opportunity to learn about the country which had just lifted the veil off its cultural life. The Moscow Festival welcomed Anna Magnani, Michelangelo Antonioni, Pietro Germi, Lillian Gish, Dmitri Tyomkin, Fred Zinnemann, Michel Simon, Dino Risi, Carol Reed, Jacques Tati, Pierre Étaix. As might be expected cinematographies of socialist countries enjoyed wider representation at the Festival. Binka Zhelyazkova, Konrad Wolf, Mircea Dragan, Jiří Sequens, Zoltan Fabri, András Kovács, István Szabó, Andrzej Wajda, Manuel Octavio Gómez demonstrated their first filmic achievements. But not every movie from a socialist country found a place for itself on the Festival programs. One might even say that movies by our socialist brothers were subjected to a more severe ideological scrutiny as compared to French bourgeois comedies or Italian political detectives. Most certainly there was no room at the Festival for the “angry young men” from disturbed Czechoslovakia, gloomy depressed Hungary, restive Poland and Yugoslavia with its striking outbursts of non-socialist realist emotions. It is impossible to imagine festival screenings of the early films by Milos Forman and his comrades, of Věra Chytilová’s “Daisies”, of the provocative creations by Dušan Makavejev or of the anti-totalitarian frescos by Andrzej Wajda. Ideological hypocrisy which became a standard of life in the USSR in the 1970-1980s, had its effect on the festival program. For the greater part it featured the “correct” films from socialist countries and not the very best samples from the West which usually had a one-sided anti-bourgeois flavor. During the Brezhnev times the Festival could not function as an objective mirror of world cinema where one peak followed another. The French New Wave, the American Independents which gave a serious incentive to the development and shaping of New Hollywood – all these phenomena had no direct relation to the MIFF. Such films could be seen only at semi-official screenings which caused incredible commotion. And yet, even with this invalidated program, the Festival did not lose its appeal for cinema lovers who flocked from all over the country to attend screenings of films which filtered their way through censorship and reached film theatres (by the way, there were a lot of them, around 20 were scattered throughout the capital). Festival management at the time had a hard time upholding the international image and standing of the Festival. Its status was maintained primarily thanks to competition movies from the USSR, some of which were real masterpieces, like, let us say, “Come and See” (1985) directed by Elem Klimov, the future “perestroika” head of the Filmmakers’ Union of the USSR. Barely two years will have passed (the festival will become an annual event in 1999) and the situation will change drastically in 1987. The main trend to destroy all “walls” between the West and the socialist camp which to a considerable extent was provoked by the revolt of the disgruntled filmmakers at their memorable 5th Congress in May 1986, appealed to foreign filmmakers who were eager to see the country vigorously renovating itself at an incredibly fast pace and trying to shed the bonds of its former regime – socialism of the Soviet variety. To see the immensity of this appeal it is sufficient to list the names of the Jury members at the XVth MIFF: Robert De Niro, Miklos Jancso, Hanna Schygulla, Antonio Gades, Tenguiz Abuladze, who had just received world-wide acclaim for his anti-totalitarian parable “Repentance”. In 1989, just a year before the country called the USSR disappeared from the map of the world the interest in this country which had just broken free and yet was on the brink of an economic collapse grew even keener. The Jury was composed of Andrzej Wajda, rehabilitated by the new ideologists, Emir Kusturica who had already achieved the superstar status, the Czech Jiří Menzel, a former dissident and now almost an acknowledged classic, Zhang Yimou, the winner of the Berlin Festival, the Dutch master Jos Stelling who surprised the Russian audience with his “The Pointsman”. The Festival seethed with premiers, heated debates at the Filmmakers’ Professional Club PROK in the House of the Filmmakers lasted long past midnight. This lively atmosphere which lingered for many years sometimes adversely affected the programmatic discipline; the competition program was composed rather arbitrarily and true masterpieces went side by side with casual films. For the sake of justice it must be noted that sometimes the films that came to the attention of the Festival were made by directors who in a few years would become renowned masters like Aki Kaurismäki, Atom Egoyan, Krzysztof Kieślowski, Asghar Farhadi, Boris Khlebnikov and Alexei Popogrebsky.
The slightly ambiguous standing of the event within the world festival movement due to it being a by-annual event, became a thing of the past in 1999 when Nikita Mikhalkov became the President of the Festival. The Festival now had a well-coordinated team and advocated greater discipline in programming and screenings. Over the years it has become a well-established cultural and social phenomenon. In 2014 accreditation was granted to more than 4000 guests more than half of them were media representatives. Another evidence of its growing role is the so called media value which has recently approached €4 mln. Only five years ago the Festival had difficulties attracting the viewers, but now we observe the opposite tendency. All the 11 halls of the “Oktyabr” multiplex can’t provide enough space for the Festival. Nikita Mikhalkov persuaded the Moscow government to provide construction sites in Luzhniki for the future festival palace. The festival repertoire underwent radical changes. It has become a renowned venue for world premieres. Among the recent festival guests whose films became important events were Brad Pitt, Quentin Tarantino, Michael Mann, John Malkovich, Shia LaBeouf, Sean Penn, Adrien Brody, Tim Burton.
In 1999 the honorary award for outstanding actors was established. Among the recipients of the Konstantin Stanislavsky Award “I Believe” were Jack Nicholson, Jeanne Moreau, Meryl Streep, Harvey Keitel, Fanny Ardant, Daniel Olbrychski, Gerard Depardieu, Oleg Yankovsky, Isabelle Huppert, Emmanuelle Béart, Jacqueline Bisset, Ksenia Rappoport, Catherine Deneuve, Helen Mirren, Ralph Fiennes. In 2014 the honorary award was given to famous Russian actress Inna Churikova.
The consolidation of the Festival status is directly related to the situation in the film business in the country. A premiere in Moscow is a serious incentive for the promotion of the movie. For example the staggering success of the Russian movie “Dukhless” resulted from the fact that it was the opening movie of the 34th MIFF. This is true of other prominent premiers of recent years like Sergei Loban’s “Chapiteau Show”, Andrei Proshkin’s “The Horde” and “Orlean” , Renata Litvinova’s “Rita’s Last Fairy Tale” and others.
Leading foreign film companies are eager to hold world premieres in our country estimating the audience potential in Russia as one of the most promising in the world. The Film Market held as part of the MIFF has strengthened its presence and aroused enormous interest of the distributors. A noteworthy feature of the MIFF is its retrospectives which invariably arouse public interest. The audience reacquaint themselves with the movies which were once denied access to the USSR but are now shown on big screens and often these are restored versions. Among the most notable retrospectives of the past few years are those devoted to John Cassavetes, Marco Ferreri, Claude Chabrol, Sergio Leone, Werner Herzog, Costa-Gavras, Ernst Lubitsch, Yonfan, Bernardo Bertolucci, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Ulrich Seidl, Jean-Jacques Annaud, Michael Apted, Simone Signoret and Yves Montand, Takeshi Kitano, to American classical musicals and many others.
The viewers show a lot of interest in such festival programs as “8 ½ Films”, “Euphoria”, “Missing Pictures”, “Media Forum”, the documentary program “Free Thought” which has been regained its status as a competition program, “Short Film Corner” and others. The program of contemporary Russian cinema which includes premieres of the most striking movies by filmmakers from this country created over the previous season traditionally attracts a lot of viewers. The Festival publishes the daily newspaper “Manezh”, covers the main Festival events on its closed circuit TV, prints brochures about special programs.
Over the past 20 years the Festival Jury was headed by the leading world film personalities Richard Gere, Theo Angelopoulos, Margarethe von Trotta, Alan Parker, Gleb Panfilov, Fred Schepisi, Luc Besson, Geraldine Chaplin, Héctor Babenco, Pavel Lungin, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Kim Kiduk, Brillante Mendoza.
The program director of the MIFF for more than 15 years was culturologist Kirill Razlogov (1946-2021), in December 2021 the film critic and film director Peter Shepotinnik was appointed to this position, the selection committee is headed by a Russian film critic Andrei Plakhov.
For many years the President of the MIFF has been the Russian director and actor Nikita Mikhalkov.