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© Ismene Brown 1992-2022


3 MAR 16   

Here is a riveting Russian interview recently with Mark Franchetti, maker of the splendid Bolshoi Babylon documentary film, which tells a great deal about the contrast between the chilly exterior Russia presents the West and the realities Franchetti found. He insists that despite the habitual cynicism of Russia and the West about each other, he and his film partner Nick Read had an unprecedented and wholly uninfluenced access of a type he would never have had anywhere else in the world.

He says that people who look for intrigues and conspiracies in what happened at the Bolshoi are barking up the wrong tree. He discusses the Russian national tendency always to prefer a conspiracy to the simple answer, a factor that he thinks hugely complicated the Sergei Filin saga, and paradoxically may have helped him, as a foreigner (though well-known as the Sunday Times Moscow correspondent), to win the trust he needed.

His claim of having complete editorial freedom is supported by his admission that though he shot hours of interview and studio time with the elderly despot Yuri Grigorovich, the 30-year ruler of the Soviet Bolshoi Ballet, he left it all on the cutting room floor. Being ignorant about ballet, he refused to make the film about ballet. He preferred to show the cleaner and the programme-seller, the single-mother ballerina and the trustee chairman, in his editing of 140 hours of material on the life of a great, mysterious institution.

By the way, Franchetti clarifies the position of Nikolai Tsiskaridze in the film - Tsiskaridze has complained that he refused to be in the film, so he should not be. Franchetti explains what happened, and comments that in 25 years of making film he has never encountered such conceit as Tsiskaridze's.

The unpolitical inside life of the Bolshoi

Afisha. ru, 2 February

Two years ago, the Sunday Times correspondent made the film The Condemned in a hard labour prison. Now his second film about Russia is released - Bolshoi Babylon, about the dark side of the Bolshoi Theatre in the scandalous 2013-4 season during which the ballet company’s artistic director Sergei Filin was splashed in the face with acid.

AFISHA: It's great that you were able to get your movie a release.

FRANCHETTI: Yes, although it will not really reach many screens. But yes, it’s really good, because the film was made for cinemas, not for television. At first I wasn’t thinking about the Bolshoi Theatre. But when I was there getting stories for The Sunday Times I realised that actually this could be a really interesting d0cumentary.

What got the film started?

I had a talk with [former general director Anatoly] Iksanov, my pitch was that a lot was being written about the Bolshoi Theatre, mostly very bad, it was a tough time, scandalous. I wanted to make a documentary film with complete access, observing the company for several months, without partisan commentary, with no state interference. Naturally, the story about Filin had to be in the film, but it was not the central focus of it. The film wouldn't be about ballet, not about art, but about people and real lives in the wings throughout the season after this appalling scandal. He said yes. We began shooting. When Dmitrichenko was arrested, our access stopped. For them this was a double blow - the person who was accused of the crime was also one of their theatre colleagues. The company was dreadfully split, there was terrible tension.

Had Urin [Iksanov's replacement, appointed July 9, 2013] arrived by then?

No. Dmitrichenko was arrested in March. When Urin came in I went to him - it was only his third day at work - and showed him some rushes, and he agreed we could continue working. For them this was really important: at that point our film was already a BBC project, they knew me in the theatre, I showed the head of the press office my film The Condemned [2013 - a documentary about a penal colony for which Franchetti and his colleague Nick Reed also obtained unprecedented access], so as to make it clear how I work: not like a reporter but as a director of documentaries. It was important that this should be a great film, not just a newsworthy subject.

And how significant was it that the film was being made for a foreign broadcaster?

I don’t think it was a principal issue. To some degree it helped me that I am a foreign reporter. Naturally there is always a risk to reputation - but the stuff Russian television at that point was putting out was all aggressive, full-frontal attacks. There were two clans at war, it was badmouthing, the sort of yellow journalism that I think made them reckon I was the lesser of the two evils: it was clear that I would not advocate either side. As for me, it was very obviously clear that I would be taking no orders from anyone within the country, that I did not represent the interests of either Tsiskaridze or Iksanov or anyone else.

Tsiskaridze's change of mind

 Why does Tsiskaridze only appear in the film towards the end, and so briefly?

It’s quite simple. When we started principal photography (this was the 2013-14 season) he was not in the theatre by then. And we made a strict decision: since we had this unique access. we had to use it to film people inside the theatre. Then we did an interview with him, since he, actually, was an important figure in the ballet of the past 20 years and also was being accused of participation in what happened [to Filin]. We talked after he had taken up his new position in the Vaganova Academy in St Petersburg.

When we started cutting the film, he still had not signed his consent, he changed his mind. He was the only person who demanded to see in advance what we planned to use, and although it is not our practice, we did show him the cuts which we intended to use from the interview in the film. And he changed his mind.

And what was included in the film?

Our lawyers were firm that we could use the material: he knew that they were filming, he knew the filming would be for a documentary.  But I took the principled decision - although, to put it mildly, it was not pleasant to do - not to use the pieces. Because I had gone to him via people who know and respect me, I didn’t want to undermind anyone. For the film itself we eventually bought pieces of other interviews, BBC, Tina Kandelaki, Radio Liberty. He had said similar things to us, and I think that our interview was more interesting, but he didn’t want to, which meant he didn’t want to. His affair.

When you filmed in jail, you said it would have been impossible to have come up with a scenario for it in advance. Could you, with the Bolshoi?

No, here, too, that wouldn’t have been possible. Here it was far more complicated to choose the focus than in jail.

What were you basically planning to film there?

In a film like this, everything depends on the access. You have this closed institution, they’ve let you into it. That’s amazing, great - now what? What’s your story? There are 3,000 people working there. We followed 25 principal characters because we couldn’t select between them. Filin, obviously.  With time it became clear that Urin was also very interesting - he speaks quite openly, he is a very strong character.

After the premiere he gave his opinion honorably. He said he did not agree with it, but he respected it.

And I have much respect for him too. Precisely because of this attitude. I can’t judge whether or not he's a good director of the Bolshoi Theatre - I'm no expert. But as a person he's very straight and immediately gives an answer. I like these sorts of people, I am like that myself, I don’t go around looking for intrigues. I have more like the attitude that I gave my word, and we understood each other. That’s why I found it simpler in jail, where there are very strict, clear rules.

I came to have considerable respect for Urin and Katya Novikova (head of the Bolshoi press office): they opened doors, never once asked me to show them what I had shot, never leant on me in any way. We never signed any agreements in advance - the document about access was signed off 5 months after we finished shooting, and they might easily have said to me at any moment, we don’t need you, bye-bye.

The interesting fact is that one simply could not have made a film abroad with this level of trust. It’s another world. And it’s surprising: Russia is becoming much more closed, more anti-West, criminal, a ghastly atmosphere. But there is this obverse: everything being just built on personal relationships. It’s possible simply to talk straight to people about things. When you start working in Russia, you understand that things are far more multi-layered than they look.

Conspiracy theories preferred

In an interview somewhere you’ve said that a characteristic trait of Russians is to construct conspiracy theories.

Yes. The Italians, too, even though we are very different. I don’t know why it is. I often ask myself this question: why aren’t Russians inclined to believe the most logical, rational and comprehensible version of events? I don’t understand if it’s always been like that. But it seems not to be possible for a Russian person that things are simple, that this person did that thing - no, it means, behind it lurks some monstrous conspiracy or other. Russian society is quite cynical. They don’t believe simple versions. In general they don’t believe in anything.

You mean, overall, nothing?

Yes. Overall, nothing. I think the passion for conspiracies is partly connected with this. Like, ‘We don’t need you to tell our stories, we know who you are.’

From the penal film, as it happens, I didn’t get any such feeling.

Well, because we weren’t talking about politics. And that would have just started the same thing: ‘No way will you, a foreign correspondent, not be acting on someone’s interests. We all know how you do things, it might look just the same but you are just cunning and getting away with it. No way Navalny just doing what he seemed to be doing.’ All that. So no way did separatists shoot a plane down by accident. And the people supporting Dmitrichenko in his conflict with Filin to this very day do not believe in his participation in the attack. They think he was framed - the Kremlin, Iksanov, anyone but the man himself.      

Whereas I work on a very simple principle that a man explained to me when I had only been in Russia a couple of weeks, and even in Russian I couldn’t understand it then. He told me, ‘Mark, if someone tells you about a plot that has been thought more than two moves in advance, don’t believe it.’ And all these complicated combinations, these are for movies, not real life. And if as a correspondent I need to decide whether a certain situation came about through cock-up or some multistranded conspiracy, I’ll choose cock-up every time.

It’s very similar to the thought that Mikhail Zygar begins his book on today’s Russian politics.

Yes, I have read it. Yes, of course! We can sit around and with hindsight after an event come up with some terribly crafty plan behind it all, but life doesn’t happen like that. In the great majority of cases it’s a simple chain of spontaneous actions.

And here, I am certain, there was no master-plan. A conflict existed before the attack on Filin - truly, a war for power between clans. There were people against Iksanov, his associates in the Kremlin, the first to want to remove him. But from there I think the story around Dmitrichenko… though personally I don’t know him, he refused to do an interview with me. He said that when he complained to [Yuri] Zarutsky [convicted of carrying out of the acid attack on Filin], Zarutsky said: ‘Listen, why don’t I punch him in the face’, and Dmitrichenko agreed. I believe that. But that he sat in his room and hatched a plan, that he paid money to have someone throw acid in Filin’s face - that I don’t believe. I believe that Zarutsky overreached himself, let’s put it that way. But again, for us that wasn’t the most interesting story. It wasn’t an investigation at all. We wanted to talk about the deeper currents around it.

All the same, the attack story does have a lot of space in the film.

Well, yes. It takes up more space than we’d planned - this happened in the editing, as the channels who supported us financially (HBO, BBC, German TV) found this story more interesting.

In several interview you’ve said that this wasn’t a film about Russia. But it starts with a voiceover of one of the main protagonists saying that the country has two powerful brands: the Bolshoi Theatre and Kalashnikov. And there are many scenes where it’s hard not to pick up that metaphor.

This was [Trustees chairman Alexander] Budberg’s phrase, yes. Look, this is not a political film. But we were always interested in looking at the Bolshoi Theatre as a symbol. It is really such a totally unique brand - maybe, today it’s not so powerful as it was for instance in Cold War times, but it has always been a political tool of soft power. Even today, the decision on who leads the Bolshoi is taken at presidential level. Formally, the Culture Minister appoints the director, but he agrees it with the President. And it doesn’t matter even that the current President has no interest in theatre, that he prefers his hockey. He still calls Urin to his office, appoints him in a personal meeting. This is high status. And this really interested us - nowhere in the theatre world does someone have equivalent status.

The theatre’s rating among ballet experts didn’t interest us at all - I repeat, this isn’t a film about ballet, it’s a film about an institution. I mean, let’s take one of the ballerinas - she goes on the tube, she’s a single mother, she has a very hard life. From the start we were making our film about this - the simple people who are part of an enormous brand. This is also an original attempt to find Russia in miniature.

At 7 pm the warring clansmen put down their arms

In the film you often hear the idea expressed that the Bolshoi is a mirror of Russian society. But the theatre’s employees, it would seem, have no interest at all in politics.

Absolutely! We wanted to catch any political conversations going on in the canteen but there pretty much nobody talked about the news. People are so focused on their work - nothing comes before that.  They give up everything in their lives for ballet. But what the system is built up on is very characteristic. It’s understood that in the theatre you get intrigues going on everywhere, gossip. Everywhere having connections helps, but in Russia they are what helps most of all. You can influence an appointment, for example, even if you’re not a ballet expert, if you happen to be in a suitable position.

This prestige in who you know, the closed circle, that’s a very Soviet trait. In the film Urin gets irritated with someone and corrects them, ‘This isn’t Soviet ballet! This is world ballet!’ You sense that this is a sore subject.

Yes, very much so. And he, too, is in some ways a Soviet guy. But this closedness does exist. They do allow TV cameras in, but more often than not for small topics. And still, as you see, they let us in. Interestingly, it was politically such a raw time: Crimea, Donbass, Russia severing relations with the West, closing down, becoming ultraconservative - while with us, boom, they let us into the country’s main theatre. And it turns out that inside everyone is thinking only about art.

I very much like the phrase of Akimov, who has worked there for 53 years - the Bolshoi being like an ocean liner. War, revolution, the wild 90s - it just floats on. Inside everyone is arguing with everyone else, hatching plots. But whatever’s been happening, at 7 in the evening the show goes on. During the period of the attack on Filin the performances carried on without interruption. All the warring clansmen at this moment of time join together for the theatre’s great work.

It’s harder to find endorsement in this discussion from the political metaphors.

This isn’t a film about Putin's Russia. This isn’t a general point of view, in which it needs to be explained about Putin’s Russia that he isn’t interested in theatre, he doesn’t go to the cinema.

On which point, why doesn’t Medinsky appear?

Why did we need him in the film? We filmed a cleaner who has worked for 50 years in the theatre. We had so many protagonists who in the end didn’t find a place in the film. For instance, we shot quite a bit of Grigorovich - we established excellent relations with him, he is a very interesting man. In the end, his interview didn’t make it into the film. The woman who sold programmes has been working there for 52 years, and remembers every important presidential meeting. The make-up artist, who does the dancers’ make-up and has also worked there for an eternity. It was helpful that we knew nothing about ballet itself - people were open with us because they realised we were only interested in them as people. We shot 140 hours of material.

Filin, by the way, also took on board he was more interesting to us as a person - and he was the toughest interview we’ve ever had. Usually he’s talking about the art, but with us he spoke about how his relationships with people had changed when he got the job. And he said, maybe, it hadn’t been worth him agreeing to do the job. But to get to him was very difficult, and it was fairly complicated dealing with him.

But he didn’t act up, like Tsiskaridze.

No, they are fundamentally different people. Tsiskaridze reckons he’s the best in the world. I have worked for 25 years as a journalist, and I’ve never come across such conceit.

Russian reactions to Bolshoi Babylon film

Filin 'to head choreography scheme'

Vaziev appointed Bolshoi ballet head

' I often ask myself  why aren’t Russians inclined to believe the most logical, rational  version of events?'

The outsider who got inside the Bolshoi

Mark Franchetti