DOC NYC ’15: Going beyond backstage in “Bolshoi Babylon”

Directors Nick Read and Mark Franchetti tell realscreen how they negotiated access to Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre and beat out competing docmakers to make a film about the troubled ballet company.
November 13, 2015

The acid attack on the ballet director of Russia’s Bolshoi Theatre was a scandal that was as irresistible to reporters as it was shocking to ballet fans.

In January 2013, an assailant ambushed Sergei Filin outside his Moscow home and threw acid in his face, partially blinding the former ballet dancer and leaving third-degree burns on his face and neck. The incident made news around the world and exposed in-fighting behind the scenes at one of the world’s most esteemed performing arts institutions.

Documentary filmmakers were quick to react to the growing scandal. HBO had put a project in development based on the Bolshoi and a team of docmakers were pitching to the BBC.

Ultimately, it was filmmaker Nick Read (The Condemned) and co-director Mark Franchetti (the Moscow correspondent for The Sunday Times) who were granted access.

They were finishing up The Condemned when they first reached out to the Bolshoi a couple weeks after the attack and pitched then-company director Anatoly Iksanov on a doc about life backstage at the Bolshoi. Initially, he agreed.

They started filming a teaser but when star dancer Pavel Dmitrichenko was arrested, along with two other men, and accused of ordering the attack (he was later sentenced to six years in prison), the theater shut down production.

Iksanov was eventually fired so Read and Franchetti waited until three days after Russia’s culture ministry appointed Vladimir Urin, formerly of the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Music Theatre, to pitch the project again.

To their surprise, he said yes immediately.

“His exact quote was, ‘We should be open. We shouldn’t fear criticism. As long as you don’t come to it with an agenda, I’m all for it,’” Franchetti tells realscreen. “I was surprised he let us in on trust. There was no written agreement. They never once throughout the whole project, which lasted a year and a half, said, ‘You have to show us the film.’ They never even suggested it.”

“There were other people approaching him who had come in with broadcasters,” adds Read.” “This was not an arts documentary. Crucially, we wanted it to be cinematic and that’s what we pitched to the Bolshoi to acquire the access.”

HBO Documentary Films signed on, providing the bulk of the funding. Germany’s BR and MDR, ARTE, Viera and BBC ‘Storyville’ also put up financing, as did distributor/sales agent Altitude Film and private equity sources.

The filmmakers spent five months shooting during the Bolshoi’s nine-month 2013/2014 ballet season and then another eight months editing. Bolshoi Babylon had its world premiere at TIFF in September (where realscreen spoke to the directors) and screens tonight (November 13) at DOC NYC. (HBO will air the doc on December 14 and it opens in UK cinemas on January 8.)

Once inside the theater, the filmmakers were overwhelmed by its size. The theater houses ballet and opera companies and employs a staff of 3,000, of which 250 are employed by the ballet. Read and Franchetti did not go in with a set agenda and did not strictly focus on the acid attack or the ballet company at first.

“We were alive to the conflicts and the friction points so it took us a long time to cast the film and for a long time we were trying to film too many characters,” explains Read. “There were endless possibilities, from cleaning ladies who had been working there for 50 years, all the way through to the major stars.”

bolshoi babylon sergei filin

Sergei Filin following the acid attack

In all, they shot with 20 to 25 individuals including Urin and Filin – who remained a controversial figure in the ballet. Filin was undergoing operations in Germany to regain his sight but agreed to participate in the filming. However, he never seemed to be able to find the time to meet the directors.

“He is very evasive – literally and metaphorically,” says Read. “That partly defined his management style.”

Once Filin did sit down for an interview, he gave the directors what they wanted. He admitted that he never should have accepted the job in the first place and compared managing the ballet company to “being at war, like walking on a minefield.” (The Bolshoi announced in July it would not renew Filin’s contract and has since appointed a successor.)

Interviewing dancers who are professionally trained not to show emotion was also a hurdle. The company is an insular world and even as dancers were testifying at Dmitrichenko’s trial, many inside the building acted like it wasn’t happening.

However, the dancers opened up when asked to describe how they felt about the Bolshoi as an institution.

“Russians generally can be quite stoic,” says Read. “They’re loyalists inside the Bolshoi. They knew this was a sensitive time and they were trying to repair their image and reputation. It took us a long time to win the trust but even longer for them to thaw out and for us to feel we were getting something genuine.”

The directors did not find the narrative arc of the film until the editing phase. The film went through significant changes over eight months. It initially started out as an observational documentary about life in the Bolshoi, but network funders were more interested in focusing on the acid attack and so the filmmakers had to find a way to make two narratives – the past and present – gel.

“Our ballet background is minus zero and I actually think that’s a huge advantage,” he says. “It’s not a film about ballet. It’s not an arts film. It’s a film about an extraordinary institution and it’s a film about people. The fact that ballet is the setting is not really very important. If you went and made the film that we tried to make and were a big ballet expert, you’d get completely caught up in who’s the most important ballet dancer and why. We were just looking for interesting stories and characters.”

Read and Franchetti hope viewers come away from the film with a more complex view of Russian society at a time when the country is the subject of negative press coverage around corruption scandals and the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria.

“The difference between how Russia sees its crisis and itself and how the West sees it is so huge that when you’re trying to be an objective reporter and do more nuanced reporting, it’s difficult because Putin’s Russia is so demonized now,” says Franchetti. “It’s a complicated story but everyone wants it to be black and white. It’s been very tough for most reporters there.”

“Many people said to us the Bolshoi was a mirror of Russian society and we dallied with that idea in the film. There are many aspects of the Bolshoi that defied that description as well as confirmed it,” adds Read. “There is a line in the film that the Bolshoi is like an ocean liner: it keeps on sailing on regardless of the storm around it.”

Bolshoi Babylon plays at DOC NYC tonight (November 13) at 7 p.m. at the SVA Theatre. Visit the festival’s website for info.

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