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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 difficult to recollect now — was desirous to support the humanities. For a decade, Serebrennikov staged performances at Moscow’s largest theaters and eventually caught the eye of Vladislav Surkov, a top Putin adviser who coined “sovereign democracy,” an unusual term for a system freed from Western meddling and only democratic to the extent its leaders allowed. Surkov saw artists as a essential tool in that arrangement: as each evidence of Russia’s modernity and its tentative patience toward free expression. In 2011, Serebrennikov was put in command of Platform, a latest federally funded arts festival, and, a 12 months later, the Gogol Center, a sleepy theater that he became a hub for avant-garde performance. Concurrently, 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 right 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 identical 12 months, 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 due to 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.) As a substitute, he got financing from Abramovich and in 2016 released “The Student,” which mocked the country’s increasing conservatism and non secular hypocrisy. The subsequent 12 months, 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 modified,” Serebrennikov told me. The director began 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, amongst other top stories. “We turned up the amount, and it was literally: America is bad, the Olympics in Russia are good, and will we really want a director like this?” His friends checked out him as if he were a dead man. “You start to know that some dark clouds are starting to collect, but you’ve got no idea why,” he said.

Serebrennikov was arrested in St. Petersburg, where he was filming “Summer,” a nostalgic take a 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 among the crew. As a substitute it was six officers from the F.S.B., Russia’s state security agency, who took Serebrennikov right into a van and drove him the eight hours back to Moscow. Nobody knew he was gone until morning, when Stewart, his producer, asked the hotel’s manager to open Serebrennikov’s room and located that his bed hadn’t been slept in.

In Moscow, Serebrennikov was sentenced to accommodate arrest in his 474-square-foot apartment while awaiting trial. But there was still the last third of the film to complete. After Serebrennikov’s lawyers petitioned the court to permit him day by day walks to get fresh air, Stewart had the thought to rebuild the film’s sets in Serebrennikov’s neighborhood, in order 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 provides notes. “In case you give it some thought from a production perspective, this can be a crazy method to make a movie,” Stewart told me.

Creatively, Serebrennikov’s house arrest was productive. He directed two plays via Zoom, 4 operas and wrote five screenplays, including his next film, “Petrov’s Flu.” When he shot it in the autumn of 2019, he was already standing trial. The costs revolved around using petty money, which is a legal method to pay vendors but on 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 within the mornings, so Serebrennikov shot the film at night. “He didn’t sleep for the whole shoot, principally,” Stewart told me. Serebrennikov was convicted of fraud in June 2020. The subsequent 12 months he was fired from the Gogol Center.

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