Russian filmmaker Natalia Chernysheva was stunned recently to learn that her award-winning 2012 short film Snowflake was screening in festivals again.
But what shocked her even more is that her film had been retitled as Away from Home, and another individual, Brunella De Cola, had inserted their name into the credits as the director.
De Cola, 33, is an Italian film industry worker who claims to have worked on films like Oz the Great and Powerful, Maleficent, and Isle of Dogs. In the spring of 2022, she began submitting Chernysheva’s film to festivals and claiming it as her own. (Cartoon Brew has reviewed both films in question and they are identical with the exception of the title and end credits.)
De Cola’s strategy worked for a while and the rebranded film was accepted into major European festivals including PÖFF Shorts (Tallinn, Estonia) and Cinanima (Espinho, Portugal).
In a December 2020 interview with the Italian publication Scenografia&Costume, De Cola spoke about how she had made the film “entirely by myself” and lamented the lack of Italian funding for short film animation. In that same interview, she discussed her visual inspirations (“I saw Aki Kaurismaki’s film The Other Side of Hope at the Berlinale. It doesn’t really have much to do with my short film but, while I was drawing, I often thought about the film and the director’s framing choices”) and production techniques (“I drew mainly in Photoshop, with a mouse because strangely enough I’m faster with that than with the graphics tablet”).
The film she was talking about, however, was a graduation project by Natalia Chernysheva that was released in 2012 by Moscow-based Studio Pchela.
De Cola did not respond to multiple requests from Cartoon Brew for comment or explanation.
Chernysheva, who is well known in the world of short film and whose work has been covered by Cartoon Brew before, remains bewildered that someone would claim her film Snowflake as their own. Chernysheva’s film screened at dozens of international film festivals and won 17 international prizes, including best film by an emerging director at the Chicago Int’l Children’s Film Festival and the audience award at the New York Int’l Children’s Film Festival. In addition, Chernysheva told Cartoon Brew that there are countless witnesses who saw her working on the film, including teachers and friends, as well as artists who worked on the production.
Natalia Chernysheva’s original 2012 film Snowflake
She concedes that De Cola “has a very good imagination if she describes the tools she used to produce my film” since Chernysheva does not know De Cola nor recalls ever meeting her.
Chernysheva first learned of the misuse of her film from the French studio Folimage, which is also the distributor of her film in France. “They told me someone in the committee of Clermont Ferrand Film Festival recognized it,” she said. “Snowflake is well known in France. In fact it was selected for competition program in the very same [Clermont Ferrand festival] ten years ago.”
It remains unclear who, if anyone, connected to De Cola was aware that the film was produced by Chernysheva, but it was evidently unclear to the film’s Italian distributor Zen Movie and producer/agent A Little Confidence. Upon learning of the situation, the two companies jointly released a statement on December 5 that they would remove the film from festivals due to “deep concerns regarding potential violations of festival regulations.”
They went on to further say:
In specifying that Ms. Brunella De Cola is still affirming herself as the owner of the rights of the film, the undersigned, given the adverse revindications, have decided to immediately stop the distribution of the short film and to withdraw all the submissions already made to festivals.
The undersigned, insofar as it is within their respective competences, will adopt, in every area of their activity, the most appropriate solutions in order to shed light on the effective chain of rights of the short film and, if necessary, will take any further action aimed at protecting their interests and professional reputation.
Willing to restore the trust in the professional activity that we carry on with seriousness and love, we send the best regards.
Cartoon Brew also reached out to the credited composer of De Cola’s film, Lorenzo Petruzziello, to ask about his involvement. The soundtrack of De Cola’s film is not Petruzziello’s; it is the same soundtrack as the one composed by Alexsandr Babin for Chernysheva’s Snowflake.
Petruzziello confirmed to Cartoon Brew that the music in the film is not his, despite him being credited. He explained that he had composed a light jazz piece with piano, drums, and double bass called “Away from Home” while he was studying music. (Cartoon Brew has been able to independently verify the existence of this piece of music.)
Petruzziello explained that De Cola had asked him to create a music video using his music and she had sent him “various test clips” throughout the production process. However, the final film contains none of his music.
Cartoon Brew also reached out to the Academy of Italian Cinema, which presents the David di Donatello Awards, Italy’s equivalent of the Oscars. De Cola’s film had been submitted this year for award consideration to the Academy, but the organization has since removed the film from contention without making a statement. The Academy did not respond to our request for comment about why they removed the film or how they would address the discovery of an individual releasing another person’s work under their own name.
While no legal action has been initiated as of yet against De Cola, there is widespread awareness in the film festival community about the situation and De Cola’s retitled film is no longer being programmed. ASIFA, the international organization devoted to the promotion of animation, has spread the word about what has happened and has even taken the rare step of issuing an official statement asking that De Cola’s Away from Home not be programmed into any events.
ASIFA’s president Deanna Morse wrote on the organization’s website:
We are shocked that an animation work of art would be so blatantly… well, there is no other word for it but … stolen. It is incredible that a person could even think this is possible.
Our animation community stands behind the rights of animation artists.
Our animation community supports each other.
We abhor this situation, where the work of an artist is not respected.
We stand with Natalia, and ask others to be aware of these kinds of possibilities and situations.
Chernysheva, who continues to produce new films, remains stunned that her decade-old film was selected to screen in festivals so many years after its debut. Considering how “easy it is to resubmit the same film twice,” she said jokingly, “why bother making a new one?”