For Russian director, facing trial, art is ‘resistance’

Kirill Serebrennikov at the 69th Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, southern France. (AFP pic)

AVIGNON: For Russian theatre and film director Kirill Serebrennikov some one-and-a-half years of house arrest and a serious court case have been no obstacle to artistic creation.

Consigned to his Moscow flat as he faced embezzlement charges he strenuously denies, Seberennikov pressed on with staging theatre productions, finishing a film and even operas remotely abroad.

His house arrest, which began in August 2017, was finally lifted in April this year to the delight of the supporters of the artistic director of the trendy Gogol Centre in Moscow.

Now, Serebrennikov has drawn inspiration from the trailblazing Chinese photographer Ren Hang, who troubled the Beijing authorities but took his own life in 2017.

The play called “Outside” premiered at France’s prestigious Avignon Theatre Festival on Tuesday without Serebrennikov, who is unable to leave Moscow under terms set by the court.

The performers, who donned white T-shirts with the slogan ‘Free Kirill’ at the curtain call, were given a standing ovation by the audience.

“Theatre, cinema and photography are always an act of resistance,” Serebrennikov told AFP in an interview conducted by email ahead of the premiere of “Outside”.

“Art is always the resistance of lying, slander and obscurantism because this is the freest territory of human activity where everything is possible,” he added.

‘Became close to me’

Serebrennikov said the inspiration for the play came from messages over social media with Hang and a meeting that tragically never happened when the photographer killed himself in February 2017.

“Literally two days before the time when we were supposed to get to know each other personally, he committed suicide,” the director said.

Hang had in his short life built up an international reputation with erotically-infused photographs that broke taboos on sex in China.

“I had the feeling that a person had died who I had already managed to get to know who had already become close to me,” said Serebrennikov, adding he wrote the play during the house arrest.

“Hang said that he does not try to influence or interfere in the politics of China but China tries to interfere in his work,” he said.

‘Repression makes nothing better’

Serebrennikov is accused of creating an organised criminal group with his colleagues and embezzling more than US$2 million of state funding for a theatre project called Platforma.

He has insisted the money was used properly and calls the charges “absurd”.

For new productions of Nabucco by Verdi at the Hamburg State Opera and Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutte in Zurich, he sent instructions to singers and set designers on a USB stick through his lawyer.

But Serebrennikov railed against the notion that suffering and persecution was some kind of necessity to produce great artistic work.

“Persecution and repression do not make anything better. Even in Soviet times, I heard the phrase that an ‘artist must be hungry’. No! That is rubbish!” said Serebrennikov.

And he denied that his own incarceration had helped his creativity.

“Pressure can be an obstacle to work. When I was working under arrest I tried to imagine there was no fabricated case against me and no false accusations. And I simply worked.”

‘Force the audience’

Serebrennikov made his name in Moscow with bold and visually dramatic productions of classic plays that sometimes contained explicit scenes and nudity to the anger of conservatives.

He also directed a new ballet at the Bolshoi Theatre on the life of the legendary star Rudolf Nureyev that was controversially pulled from the schedules after the rehearsal although it did finally reach the stage.

His latest film Leto (Summer), released in 2018 to warm reviews, was a snapshot of the Leningrad underground rock scene in the 1980s and appeared to be a hymn to making art in adversity.

Serebrennikov said it was his duty as a director to grab the attention of the viewer, especially at a time when people are so easily distracted by their phones.

“For me, I think it is possible to use any kind of means that is not illegal and can force the audience to think and to feel.”

And Serebrennikov, who until his arrest was not regarded as a politically active figure in Russia, said that above all theatre needed to be personal.

“I am always happy when the theatre looks not to the crowd but every person in the hall.”

“Theatre needs every person personally but politics needs crowds and ratings.”