Russian ‘Cinema Reality’ Marches Around the World

Anastasiia Ratieieva, HWAG/UCMC analyst

It is well known that in autocracies, the documentary genre serves as the regime’s humble servant. Films such as Triumph of the Will (1935, directed by Leni Riefenstahl), which glorifies Hitler’s aesthetics, or Ordinary Fascism (1965, directed by Mikhail Romm), which conceals the facts of Soviet Union-Third Reich cooperation and falsely attributes some of the Stalinist system’s crimes (for example, the Katyn massacre) to the Nazis.

Putin’s Russia is replicating the experience of its totalitarian forefathers. In February 2024, a “documentary” film festival called Time of Heroes took place in Moscow and other Russian cities. In addition to the Russian screenings, the festival was held in 14 countries around the world.

After analysing the Time of Heroes festival’s content, we identified the Kremlin’s main messages, which are broadcast to an international audience by cinema, one of Russia’s most powerful ‘radiating towers’ of propaganda.

Documentaries for Export

The Time of Heroes festival’s organisers describe their cinema halls as “the territory of truth.” Propaganda uses the ‘documentary’ feature to elevate fabricated stories to the same level as facts. As a result, the films from ‘Time of Heroes’ should be considered pseudo-documentaries, as the accents and meanings used in them reflect the reality created by Kremlin propaganda.

Time of Heroes claims to be an international film festival. In 2023, the festival screened films in several Russian cities as well as in Ankara, Turkey. In 2024, 14 countries, including Russia, will host the festival: Argentina, Azerbaijan, Belarus, China, Cyprus, Egypt, Lebanon, Mongolia, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Peru, Tajikistan, Turkey, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. The propaganda was also amplified in the quasi-states of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

International screenings promoted the concept of an “alternative’ truth”—Russia’s perspective on Russia’s war in Ukraine. According to Mahmoud Abdel-Samia, the director of Cairo Cinema House, “The works of Russian documentary filmmakers have always been popular with Egyptians due to the authors’ sincere and truthful view of world events”.

The festival was held at the end of February, but the propaganda machine continues to spread the message to a global audience. In March, the Russian Cultural Center in Buenos Aires hosted a screening of a film from the festival program at the National University of Avellaneda. Students from the Department of Journalism watched a film about Russian’ military commanders’. ‘Argentine students learned that there is a real hunt for film crews and that facts about Russia’s war in Ukraine are being suppressed by the Western media,’ wrote RT, the propaganda arm of the Time of Heroes organisation, following the screening.

In April 2024, RT hosted a series of festival film screenings in Sri Lanka’s capital and four Italian cities. In Rome, a Ukrainian protest was held in response to the screening of a propaganda film. The branches of the Russian Cooperation for the Promotion of the Russian Language, Russian Science, and Culture serve as propaganda dissemination centres during the festival. The majority of The Time of Heroes screenings take place at Russian Houses.

Festival Narratives: Demonization of Ukraine

The Time of Heroes film festival’s shortlist includes 51 films. After analyzing the film previews, we quantified the indicators of each identified narrative. Assuming that the average viewer will see two or three films, the likelihood that they will not contain propaganda is almost zero.

The first and most prevalent narrative in at least 23 films at the festival is the demonization of Ukraine. It manifests itself in various forms of anti-Ukrainian and anti-Western rhetoric. In this case, the festival is a particularly striking example, as two films express the absurdity of Russian propaganda.

The first film is Armed Barons of Ukraine, in which the authors “investigate the smuggling of weapons supplied by the West to Ukraine to hotspots around the world”. The film is startlingly absurd from the start, with the main narrator, a Lebanese journalist, calling ‘one of the largest arms dealers’ and setting up a meeting. At this meeting, the “trader”, whose face is partially obscured (but not completely), tells Russia Today’s cameras unequivocally that “weapons supplied by NATO to Ukraine then end up in Lebanon and Syria”. The film offers no more compelling “evidence” than the “traders’” words.

The film “Ukraine Children for Sale” promises viewers “evidence of black schemes to sell Ukrainian babies to wealthy paedophiles in the UK”. The film focuses on Vasily Prozorov, a former Russian spy in Ukraine. Prozorov is well-known for spreading false information about the actions of the Ukrainian government and special services. He specifically claimed the existence of biological laboratories and Ukraine’s involvement in the downing of the Malaysian Boeing 777. The film plays with concepts, and real-life Ukrainian artificial insemination and surrogacy clinics become centres for the ‘sale of newborns’.

Almost all of the films convey the message that Ukrainian armed forces are shooting at civilians. For example, in a film about two volunteers killed while distributing food in a frontline town, it is stated that a HIMARS missile ‘flew into the place of distribution’. The main characters in a film about Horlivka utility workers ‘live and work in a city mined and destroyed by the Ukrainian armed forces’. In a film about investigating unauthorised graves, the main characters are looking for ‘victims of Ukrainian mines and shells’. The filmmakers do not directly expose propaganda and absurd lies, but rather skillfully mix them with reality and place them in the background for the audience’s better understanding.

However, these are only a few examples. The festival’s films demonize Ukraine in a variety of ways, including portraying Ukrainians as ‘Nazis’, ‘antichrists destroying the faith’, and ‘terrorists’. 

War as a Counter to De-Russification 

Another narrative found in a number of films is the war as a response to de-Sovietization. This narrative combines the cultural component with the issue of integrating the temporarily occupied territories. On March 16, 2022, Russian aircraft dropped a high-powered bomb on a drama theatre in Mariupol, where refugees fleeing their homes were hiding. Following the bombing, the central part of the theatre was destroyed, and debris blocked the entrance to the building’s bomb shelter. One of the festival’s films refers to the Mariupol theatre as “a symbol of the city’s sacrifice for the sake of liberation.” It notes that after the city was captured by Russian troops, the theatre returned to its historical “Russian” name and staged performances in its “native language.”

Another film conveying this message tells the story of some military pilots from Crimea who refused to take the oath after the collapse of the USSR because they did not want to serve Ukraine, the ‘new state’. The story then describes their ‘triumphant’ return to the peninsula following its annexation by the Russian Federation. The story of the ‘”reunion of old friends” is consistent with the Kremlin’s traditional narrative of ‘fraternal peoples’ and the “restoration” of Russia’s integrity.

“Everything that has become part of Russia is my home,” the protagonist of the film War and Peace says, “My main goal is to drive all these fascists out of my homeland.” This quote exemplifies the breadth of propaganda rhetoric on territorial issues: Russia, according to this logic, owns not only the ‘historical lands’ it claims but also all those it may occupy.

According to the film Donbas. Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow, “Donbas residents stood up for their right to speak Russian and refused to honour the memory of the fascist invaders” in 2014, for which “the Ukrainian authorities drowned peaceful protests in blood”. In April–May 2024, Russia Today screened this film in several Italian cities. 

Propaganda for mobilisation

Pseudo-documentaries contain not only manipulations and outright lies about Ukraine but also propaganda about mobilization, both among men and women. The narrative about the prestige and honour of serving in the Russian army, ‘fighting for the truth’, is contained in at least 19 films of the festival. Almost every military unit in the Time of Heroes has a separate film: special units of the Russian Guard, tank divisions, volunteer formations, and artillery units.

This narrative is aimed specifically at the populations of the BRICS member countries (Brazil, India, China, and South Africa). The Kremlin is attempting to spread the idea of the honour of joining foreign legions as part of the Russian army. In this case, Russian propaganda paves the way for the viewer via cultural initiatives. For example, the Moscow Film Festival, which took place in April 2024, hosted a BRICS film festival.

The stage of the BRICS Film Festival, April 19–23, 2024

Russian military officers also participate in the production of ‘pseudo-documentaries’. The film by military commander Timofey Yermakov (Blue Z Beard Telegram channel, 95,000) tells the story of “desperate Spanish-speaking volunteers who are participating in a special operation in Ukraine on the right side of the force. More than anyone else, they understand what it’s like to be ruled by an Anglo-Saxon hegemon who commits evil all over the world“.

This story conveys a message about the “internationality” of the Russian army. The film “Warlord-3: He Prayed in the Language of God”, which focuses on the work of RT’s warlord, Sargon Khadai, who covers events in Arabic, conveys the message that “truth has no nationality”. “Bringing the truth to people and showing them what is really going on is an equally important weapon,” says the protagonist.

The festival’s shortlist includes films about Scott Bennett, an American military commander, and Vittorio Rangeloni, an Italian journalist who is part of the Peacemaker database. To reinforce the narrative, they are referred to as ‘NATO soldiers’, as if even our ideological adversaries, the NATO military, support us. Furthermore, they feel guilty about their countries’ actions: ‘Scott Bennett travels to Donetsk to apologise for his country, holding fragments of NATO shells that the Americans send to Ukraine to kill civilians’.


All of the films mentioned above are linked by a single narrative, which is the logical conclusion for a large number of propaganda materials. It is described in the Liberation preview, which promises to answer “the main question: why the Russian military operation had no alternative”. A diverse cast of characters, including volunteers, war correspondents, civilians, soldiers, and veterans, convey the message of no alternative.

The narratives in Russian pseudo-documentaries overlap to create a unified picture of the world. This festival creates a large-scale alternative reality for the Kremlin, encompassing the past, present, and future. The viewer is shown why the Russian Federation is correct, as it provides a single interpretation of all events and prescribes a single causal system in which all elements are defined.

The Time of Heroes festival deserves special attention because RT is clearly intent on continuing the festival’s spread of disinformation around the world. New forms of Russian propaganda necessitate solutions to counteract them. Lobbying for sanctions against Rossotrudnichestvo, the world’s largest accumulator of Russian alternative reality, is especially important.