"I may not go on the red carpet anymore but at least I am free!" said Maria Shalaeva, who left "with two children and three suitcases" after being arrested at an anti-war rally in Moscow.

The story of this 42-year-old actress, who was filming in Russia and has a director's film to her credit, resembles so many others: departure in disaster for Istanbul, then Georgia where she has "friends", then Paris where she rebuilds her life, between intensive French courses and cinema sessions in the small theaters of the Latin Quarter.

Because first you have to learn a new language: Maria Shalaeva hopes to frequent film sets again, without being confined to roles of Russian characters.

Refusing to dwell on her material difficulties that "are nothing compared to the suffering of Ukrainians", she dreams of making a documentary on exile, keeping in touch with her friends from the cinema who have gone to Israel or Georgia.

An important first step will be the screening of a short film she shot in Moscow before the war, at the Rencontres du cinéma russe in Paris.

The 2023 edition welcomes refugee creators until Tuesday. "This is the last wave of independent films" shot before exile, says its general delegate Marc Ruscart, who claims to have "broken all contacts" with the Russian institutions that supported the festival before.

In general, "it is complicated to know what Russian cinema will become at the end of this transition period," analyst Joël Chapron told AFP.

"Films from the outside"

Some films shot before the war continue to be released on Western screens, such as "Captain Volkonogov escaped", in French cinemas on Wednesday.

The fate of this film criticizing Stalinism sums up the shift to the work: it was shot at a time when independent filmmakers could still find public funding for projects that deviated from the official line.

It was presented in Venice in 2021 but would have "no chance" of being produced or distributed in Russia today, says its French producer Charles-Evrard Tchekhoff.

Russian director Alexei Chupov during a photo shoot for the film "Captain Volkonogov Escaped" at the Venice Film Festival, September 8, 2021 © Marco BERTORELLO / AFP/Archives

Directors Alexei Chupov and Natalya Merkulova, who told AFP in Venice that they hoped to "continue not to have problems", have gone to Baku (Azerbaijan), where they are trying to set up a film school. For safety, they no longer wish to express themselves publicly, explains their producer.

To make these "films from the outside" that may be the future of Russian independent cinema, some hope to recreate Russia in other Eastern European countries or shoot among Russian communities abroad, says Joel Chapron.

Among the big names who have chosen exile, Andrei Zvyagintsev ("Leviathan", "Lack of Love"), 59, is welcomed Paris, while a couple of promising thirty-somethings, Kira Kovalenko and Kantemir Balagov, is in Los Angeles.

The latter, unable to shoot in his region of origin, Kabardino-Balkaria, locates his next project in New Jersey, where a diaspora of this Caucasian republic is installed.

"Russian culture has always managed to survive historically, (even) outside Russia. It's a very powerful force," Kirill Serebrennikov ("Leto") told AFP.

The filmmaker and man of the theatre, based in Berlin and who has become the symbol of these artists in exile, says he is "not a typical case": at 53, he continues to chain projects and presents his creations throughout Europe.

He hopes to complete by the end of the year his latest feature film, adapted from Emmanuel Carrère. Filming had begun in Russia and had to continue in Latvia. From this new Russian artistic diaspora, "Limonov" will probably be the first product and has every chance of being selected in a major festival.

If Russian independent cinema was threatened with being banned from many Western institutions in the early days of the invasion of Ukraine, "the vindictiveness has subsided," says Joël Chapron.

"Cannes gave the +la+", selecting Serebrennikov's "Tchaikovsky's Wife" last year, at a time when supporting a Russian filmmaker was not self-evident, he analyzes.

Since then, festivals have lined up, from Locarno, which invited Alexander Sokurov last summer, to the last Berlinale, with a Chechen film.

© 2023 AFP