Friday, 12 February 2016

06 February, 2016 Bolshoi Babylon (2015) Directed by Nick Read and Mark Franchetti

It is the ability to inveigle his way into unlikely situations and locations which is the mark of most good documentary makers. Two years ago Nick Read managed to gain access to a high security jail in Putin’s Russia to make The Condemned, a movie which has yet to register on the radar. This movie sees him back in Russia with what seems like unfettered access to the Bolshoi company in Moscow. Not only that, but just before filming was about to start the notorious acid attack on Ballet Director Sergei Fiin took place. Remarkably, Nick Read and Mark Franchetti were still granted access, and were even allowed to follow the ramifications of this attack.

Unlike Nick Broomfield, Read (who trained as a cinematographer and is behind the camera) leaves no mark on the sound track. We neither see nor hear him at any point. In interviews, the questions are edited out. One suspects, however, that like Broomfield, Read manages to maintain an air of insouciance and naivety which gains the trust and confidence of his subjects. There is no doubt that in both of his Russian documentaries a challenging or critical attitude would have resulted in heavy censorship. Read trades his own agenda for a straightforward observational approach. He credits the observer with enough intelligence to make his own judgements. The facial expressions, the body language, the tone of voice are allowed to speak for themselves. And how eloquently they speak!

It is clear that, even for the Bolshoi, back stage tensions and jealousies have reached critical mass. Whilst Filin recovers slowly in hospital a new Director is brought in an effort to restore some order and repair the reputation of what many regard as the best ballet company in the world. Vladimir Urin is a plain speaker and appears at first to be just another party apparatchik brought in to interfere with the artistic decision-makers. But it is not as black and white as that. What becomes clear is that the Bolshoi has always been a hotbed of patronage and corruption where the mediocre often inexplicably rise to the top, and talented performers get overlooked. Filin, it seems, has at best ignored this, and at worst, been a party to it. Urin appears to be determined to be a new broom. He is a ruthless operator (within days the Music Director has been dismissed) but he does tell the dancers that from now on, all major roles will be filled by open auditions..

Does he deliver? Certainly a couple of the ballerinas who were interviewed at the beginning of the process and were bemoaning the fact that work was drying up suddenly find that it is increasing and their careers reviving. The atmosphere fairly crackles as Filin returns to work to find is job has been down-graded and his authority undermined. Filin and Urin have history, and the latest news is that Filin will leave the company later this year.

Meanwhile through all of this turmoil, the show goes on, and this movie also does a fantastic job of illustrating how a professional company manages to maintain the quality of work despite the vicissitudes back stage. This is a fascinating documentary for a general audience, and, for balletomanes, a must-see.

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