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The Russian Filmmaker Trapped Between Hollywood and Moscow

There was a time when Serebrennikov benefited from the system that ultimately turned on him. He moved to Moscow from Rostov-on-Don in 2001, when the state — and this is hard to remember now — was eager to support the arts. For a decade, Serebrennikov staged performances at Moscow’s largest theaters and eventually caught the attention of Vladislav Surkov, a top Putin adviser who coined “sovereign democracy,” an unusual term for a system free of Western meddling and only democratic to the extent its leaders allowed. Surkov saw artists as a necessary tool in that arrangement: as both evidence of Russia’s modernity and its tentative patience toward free expression. In 2011, Serebrennikov was put in charge of Platform, a new federally funded arts festival, and, a year later, the Gogol Center, a sleepy theater that he turned into a hub for avant-garde performance. Simultaneously, he attended anti-Putin protests and staged an opera that parodied Kremlin politics. He even adapted a novel that Surkov wrote under a pseudonym, but made it into a commentary on corruption.

As Putin muscled his way back into power in 2012, mass protests broke out across Russia. Putin demoted Surkov and gave the job of Minister of Culture to Vladimir Medinsky, a nationalist who warned against art that was at odds with “traditional values.” The same year, members of the feminist punk group Pussy Riot were arrested and tried. Around this time, Serebrennikov made his first attempt at a Tchaikovsky biopic and was denied state funds because of the script’s homosexual themes. (Serebrennikov has spoken out in support of Russia’s beleaguered L.G.B.T. community, and his film deals with the composer’s closeted sexuality.) Instead, he got financing from Abramovich and in 2016 released “The Student,” which mocked the country’s increasing conservatism and religious hypocrisy. The next year, Serebrennikov was accused of fraud involving a state subsidy of $1.9 million for Platform.

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“I didn’t change; the country changed,” Serebrennikov told me. The director started to notice the propaganda machine churning against him when, in 2014, while at dinner with friends, he looked up and saw himself on the state news channel, among other top stories. “We turned up the volume, and it was literally: America is bad, the Olympics in Russia are good, and do we really need a director like this?” His friends looked at him as if he were a dead man. “You begin to understand that some dark clouds are starting to gather, but you have no idea why,” he said.

Serebrennikov was arrested in St. Petersburg, where he was filming “Summer,” a nostalgic look at the Soviet Union’s underground music scene. He entered his hotel room late at night and heard a knock on the door, assuming it was one of the crew. Instead it was six officers from the F.S.B., Russia’s state security agency, who took Serebrennikov into a van and drove him the eight hours back to Moscow. No one knew he was gone until morning, when Stewart, his producer, asked the hotel’s manager to open Serebrennikov’s room and found that his bed hadn’t been slept in.

In Moscow, Serebrennikov was sentenced to house arrest in his 474-square-foot apartment while awaiting trial. But there was still the last third of the film to finish. After Serebrennikov’s lawyers petitioned the court to allow him daily walks to get fresh air, Stewart had the idea to rebuild the film’s sets in Serebrennikov’s neighborhood, so that every night the director could use those walks to drop by. Flash drives were then slipped beneath his door, and Serebrennikov would watch the takes and give notes. “If you think about it from a production perspective, this is a crazy way to make a film,” Stewart told me.

Creatively, Serebrennikov’s house arrest was productive. He directed two plays via Zoom, four operas and wrote five screenplays, including his next film, “Petrov’s Flu.” When he shot it in the fall of 2019, he was already standing trial. The charges revolved around the use of petty cash, which is a legal way to pay vendors but in this case allowed the state to argue that the director had misappropriated the funds. At one point, prosecutors claimed that a staging of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” had never happened, despite the play’s winning awards and traveling abroad. The hearings were in the mornings, so Serebrennikov shot the film at night. “He didn’t sleep for the entire shoot, basically,” Stewart told me. Serebrennikov was convicted of fraud in June 2020. The next year he was fired from the Gogol Center.



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