There was a time when Serebrennikov benefited from the system which eventually backfired. He moved to Moscow from Rostov-on-Don in 2001, when the state – and it’s hard to remember now – was keen to support the arts. For a decade, Serebrennikov staged shows in Moscow’s biggest theaters and eventually caught the eye of Vladislav Surkov, one of Putin’s top advisers who coined “sovereign democracy”, an unusual term for a system free from Western interference and only democratic as far as its leaders allowed. . Surkov saw artists as a necessary tool in this arrangement: both as evidence of Russia’s modernity and its tentative patience with freedom of expression. In 2011, Serebrennikov was put in charge of Platform, a new federally-funded arts festival, and, a year later, of the Gogol Center, a sleepy theater he turned into a performance hub. ‘avant-garde. Simultaneously, he attended anti-Putin demonstrations and staged an opera that parodied Kremlin politics. He even adapted a novel that Surkov wrote under a pseudonym, but made it a commentary on corruption.
As Putin returned to power in 2012, mass protests erupted across Russia. Putin demoted Surkov and gave the post of culture minister to Vladimir Medinsky, a nationalist who warned of art at odds with “traditional values”. The same year, members of the feminist punk group Pussy Riot were arrested and put on trial. Around this time, Serebrennikov made his first attempt at a Tchaikovsky biopic and was denied public funding due to the script’s homosexual themes. (Serebrennikov spoke out in favor of Russia’s beleaguered LGBT community, and his film deals with the composer’s closed sexuality.) Instead, he secured funding from Abramovich and released “The Student” in 2016. , which poked fun at the country’s growing conservatism and religious hypocrisy. The following year, Serebrennikov was charged with fraud involving a $1.9 million state grant for Platform.
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” I did not change ; the country has changed,” Serebrennikov told me. The director began to notice the propaganda machine turning against him when, in 2014, while having dinner with friends, he looked up and saw himself on the state news channel, between 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 start to understand that dark clouds are starting to gather, but you don’t know 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 walked into his hotel room late at night and heard a knock on the door, assuming it was a crew member. Instead, six officers from the FSB, Russia’s state security agency, picked up Serebrennikov in a van and brought him back in eight hours to Moscow. No one knew he was gone until morning, when Stewart, his producer, asked the hotel manager to open Serebrennikov’s room and discovered his bed hadn’t been put to sleep.
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 for fresh air, Stewart had the idea of rebuilding the film sets in Serebrennikov’s neighborhood, so that the director could enjoy these walks to pass. USB drives were then slipped under his door, and Serebrennikov watched the takes and gave notes. “If you think about it from a production perspective, it’s a crazy way to make a movie,” Stewart told me.
Creatively, Serebrennikov’s house arrest was productive. He has directed two plays via Zoom, four operas and written five screenplays, including his next film, “Petrov’s Flu”. When he shot it in the fall of 2019, he was already judged. The charges related to the use of petty cash, which is a legal way to pay vendors, but in this case allowed the state to argue that the manager misappropriated the funds. At one point, prosecutors claimed a staging of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” never happened, despite the play winning awards and traveling abroad. Audiences were in the morning, so Serebrennikov shot the film at night. “He didn’t sleep the whole shoot, basically,” Stewart told me. Serebrennikov was convicted of fraud in June 2020. The following year he was fired from the Gogol Center.