Culture

For Russian director facing trial, art is ‘resistance’

AVIGNON, France: For Russian theater 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, the artistic director of Moscow’s trendy Gogol Center, pressed on with finishing a film, staging theater productions and operas remotely. His house arrest spanned August 2017-April 2019.

Now, Serebrennikov has drawn inspiration from the trailblazing Chinese photographer and Beijing dissident Ren Hang, who took his own life in 2017. The play, called “Outside,” premiered at the prestigious Avignon Theater Festival Tuesday without Serebrennikov, who is unable to leave Moscow under terms set by the court.

The audience gave a standing ovation to performers, who’d donned white T-shirts with the slogan “Free Kirill” at the curtain call.

“Theater, cinema and photography are always an act of resistance,” Serebrennikov told AFP in an email interview ahead of the premiere of “Outside.” “Art is always the resistance of lying, slander and obscurantism because this is the most-free territory of human activity where everything is possible.”

Serebrennikov said inspiration for the play came from his social media exchanges with Hang and a meeting that 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.

In his short life Hang had built up an international reputation with erotically-infused photos 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 that he wrote the play during house arrest.

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

Serebrennikov is accused of creating an organized criminal group with his colleagues and embezzling more than $2 million of state funding for a theater project called Platforma. He’s 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 through his lawyer, on a USB stick.

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

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

He denied that his own incarceration had helped his creativity.

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

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

He also directed a new ballet at the Bolshoi Theater on the life of the legendary star Rudolf Nureyev that was pulled from the schedules after the rehearsal before reaching the stage.

His latest film “Leto” (Summer), released in 2018, was a snapshot of the Leningrad underground rock scene in the ’80s and appeared to be a hymn to making art under adversity.

Serebrennikov said it was his duty as a director to grab the viewer’s attention, 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.”

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

“I am always happy when the theater looks not to the crowd but every person in the hall,” he said. “Theater needs every person personally but politics needs crowds and ratings.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 18, 2019, on page 12.

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