Bolshoi BabylonBolshoi Babylon

Co-Director Mark Franchetti Discusses the Bolshoi?s Culture

  • How did you decide to make this film?

  • My day job is the Moscow correspondent of the Sunday Times of London. Obviously when the acid attack happened, it got a lot of coverage because it seemed so out of place -- that something so nasty and criminal could happen in the pretty, graceful world of ballet. Like all other Moscow correspondents, I covered the story. What made me realize almost immediately that it was potentially a great documentary was a quote by a famous choreographer, Alexei Ratmansky, who had Sergei Filin?s job and is now in New York. He posted on Facebook an emotional quote which described the Bolshoi as something like a ?disgusting cesspool of intrigue.? That really caught my attention.

    We knew if we got access, this would be a great microcosm that would tell you something about Russia in the past and present. For me, certainly, and for [director] Nick [Read], it was never going to be an art film about ballet -- it was going to be character-driven film about what life is really like backstage. Is it as cutthroat as it seems? Why does the Bolshoi attract such intrigue, policing and attention?

  • What surprised you about the Bolshoi?

  • First of all, as filmmakers, we got this extraordinary access, which has never really been granted before. It?s very important to stress that this all happened while Russia was shutting down because of the Ukraine crisis. It?s all the more surprising that they gave us that access but with no preconditions, limitations or requests to see the film before.

    I think what surprised me was seeing the ballerinas in rehearsals; they?re proper athletes. What?s extraordinary is the level of dedication and sacrifice that they have to be at the top of their game. I also found interesting what a complicated and multi-layered world the Bolshoi is. You could spend years making the film because there are so many different worlds within the state that is the Bolshoi, which is itself the state within Russia. There are all these subcultures, all very separate from each other and often very snotty about one another. The extraordinary thing is how they all come together on the night at 7 o?clock on the dot no matter what happens: revolution, the second world war, the collapse of the Soviet Union, economic crisis, acid attacks, war, whatever. The show goes on.

  • I was surprised how disillusioned some of the dancers seemed.

  • It?s a mixture of love toward the institution and yet it?s a very difficult life. There?s no getting away from the fact that they are absolutely, emotionally attached to that building. They love it. Two or three people suddenly broke down in tears in the middle of the interview when we asked, ?Tell me what the Bolshoi means for you.? All this emotion came out. Obviously, they?re artists so they?re big personalities, and Russians are quite emotional people. Additionally, they all say that the hardest stage in the world to dance in is the Bolshoi -- and they?ve danced on all the big stages.

    The disillusionment comes from the fact that it?s an incredibly tough life. You have to sacrifice so much. For what? You?re not getting paid a lot of money. It?s really just for the love of that art and the moment on stage when people are clapping and giving all this energy back. It really is about the art, and the sacrifices are huge.

    It?s incredibly tough because there?s such competition. They call it the ?graveyard of talent,? because there is so much talent that it doesn?t quite manage to break through from the ballet. The way the whole casting system works, it?s all about relationships and it?s not transparent. You?ve got to constantly fight to get noticed and get the parts. It?s a constant battle.

  • What was important for you to convey about Filin?s attack?

  • Other than getting and sustaining access, our biggest challenge was finding the story and finding the narrative. We wanted to convey how anomalous the acid attack is and how in contrast it is to the grace of that world. The acid attack became more important once we were in the cutting room than when we were filming. To us, the acid attack was a starting point. At the beginning of the film you think: This is a victim and I feel sorry for him, and of course we should because something terrible happened. But by the end of the film, you feel more conflicted about him and why it happened. That in no way justifies what happened but I think by the end of the film, things are slightly more complicated. We approached [Pavel] Dmitrichenko in jail to try to get his side of the story, but he didn?t want to give an interview.

  • To steal your own question: What does the Bolshoi mean for you?

  • It?s an extraordinary place. I have huge respect for the fact that they let us in, that they trusted us and that they accepted the film as it is.

  • Did the Bolshoi screen the film?

  • We showed it to the director and the head of the press office. Their reaction was that it?s a tough film at times, but it?s fair. I hope audiences come away thinking that this is an extraordinary institution with all sorts of problems. It?s like a family -- a very Russian family -- very dysfunctional, but at the end of the day it?s got something extraordinary about it.