The Bolshoi Ballet, the very symbol of Russian culture around the world, gets a backstage look in the new documentary Bolshoi Babylon, to air on HBO on December 21. The film has made the rounds of festivals including DOC NYC in November, when I had a chance to talk to the filmmakers: Nick Read and Mark Franchetti, a journalist based in Moscow, a correspondent for The Sunday Times of London, said they had no interest in the Bolshoi before three years ago, when Sergei Filin, the Bolshoi's artistic director, was attacked with acid outside his home. Three weeks later, a soloist, Pavel V. Dmitrichenko, was arrested for this horrific crime, ordered because of a casting decision: his girlfriend had been overlooked for the role of Odette-Odile in Swan Lake. The filmmakers came together to examine what this shocking incident said about the ballet, and Russia itself.
How did the scandal draw you to this story?
The acid attack got enormous attention. It shocked people: how could such a thing happen in a world that looks so beautiful onstage? The initial interest is, what's going on backstage at this extraordinary institution? Does that tell you something about Russia? When we approached them we told the Bolshoi we would not be focusing on the acid attack, but to open up this very closed world and give a sense of what goes on backstage.
You must have known this story would reverberate beyond the Bolshoi stage.
We wanted to make a film of contrasts: the beauty and the beast. This was an extraordinary crime, even by the standards of Russia, and its criminal underworld. Acid is an extremely unusual weapon. The attack created intense speculation and curiosity. And when Pavel Dmitrichenko was arrested some three weeks after the event, everything went into another stratosphere. Our access was completely curtailed. As a company they went into a form of collective trauma, which resulted in forms of bloodletting, sackings, changes, etcetera. We pick up the story as they reconvene for the season in 2013, but they had to deal with this, move on, and salvage their reputation as the world's leading dance company.
What did you do in the interim? Did you think your film project was kaput?
We waited. For about six months, we kept the conversation going. We approached them again when the new director Vladimir Urin was appointed. Literally on his third day of work we showed him what we had shot and pitched again. There were some rival pitches from other filmmakers. It was very important to them that we make a film that was cinema, not a television project with commentary, and that it would look amazing. All we promised is that we would be fair and didn't have an agenda. There were no conditions: They did not have to see the film before, and they were very keen that we would include the opera company. That was the only real request, and we realized that we could not do both in an hour and a half. We had no contracts.
That they would let you in sounds amazing. How do you explain that?
It was a credit to the new director and their public relations person, and all the more because we were filming at a time when Russia was becoming more isolationist, more reactionary, more conservative, and more anti-Western. The Bolshoi is the symbol of Russian culture. To let in a foreign crew that they cannot control, with no restrictions, is really a credit to how smart and how open they are.
What was the hardest part of making film?
The Bolshoi is vast, with 3000 characters, from cleaning ladies, to ushers, to the company, to the opera, and has a long history. It was a challenge to find the narrative: what is the story we are trying to tell? It was challenging to strike the balance between the television imperative and cinema, to unpack the tabloid sensationalism of the acid attack, and marry that with the present tense, to combine intimate portraits with something more epic that pays homage to their abilities and the art. In the end we made a balanced, intimate, detailed portrait.
Have they seen the film and what did they think of it?
Vladimir Urin didn't ask to see our film, but we thought it was only right. That was a nervous day. The amount of trust they gave us; we wanted to show it to them out of courtesy. We showed it in his office. He laughed when he was laughing in the film, so he was laughing with himself. He nodded approvingly when he was nodding himself. At times it was a harsh film as it was a painful chapter in the history that they want to put behind them. They said our film was fair, showing the love the characters in the film have for the institution. People will come away knowing the Bolshoi is a family, a very dysfunctional family. But no matter how many scandals, great art will always come out on top.
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.