Nick Read and Mark Franchetti’s last documentary took them inside a notorious Russian jail where the country’s worst murderers go insane serving out life sentences in solitary confinement. That experience was probably good preparation for infiltrating the famed Bolshoi Ballet, which also seems to brim with criminal intent, although here the evildoers are far more difficult to identify. Read and Franchetti’s new film, Bolshoi Babylon, which airs on HBO on December 21, covers the aftermath of the 2013 acid attack on the Bolshoi’s artistic director, Sergei Filin, which plunged the iconic Moscow ballet into international controversy.
Filin, half-blind and disfigured in the attack, is welcomed back to the Bolshoi unwarmly by its leadership, often dismissed by the company’s new general director, Vladimir Urin, and mocked and ridiculed by many of the Bolshoi’s dancers. Watching his reception from the inside reveals one of the Bolshoi’s most salient qualities: heartlessness. “Strange as it sounds, the Bolshoi always acts coldly to everything,” says Anastasia Meskova, a soloist. “We’re trained not to show emotions and to always look good.”
The film gives a quick gloss on the crime and the investigation, adding very little to the captivating reporting on the scandal by Ellen Barry in the Times and David Remnick in The New Yorker. And it deals only glancingly with important, colorful secondary figures, especially the megalomaniacal Georgian balleroon Nikolai Tsiskaridze, whose leonine mane and extreme self-love (“I am the last great star of the Bolshoi,” he told Remnick) clearly warranted more screen time.
Filin’s contract as artistic director of the Bolshoi, which will expire in March, was not renewed—a forgone conclusion to anyone who saw his treatment in this film. Despite his suffering, Filin is regarded by some with open contempt. The filmmakers take us into trustee meetings and ballet assemblies where he is laughed at for having suggested Pilates classes for the dancers in lieu of a gym or told to sit down by Urin like some petulant child.
Filin, Urin, and many of the key players in this story are quite forthcoming with the filmmakers, who have great access to the nearly 250-year-old theater, yet viewers are left with more questions than answers about the Bolshoi’s backstage dynamics and, specifically, why so many of the company’s members seem to detest one another. Politics, sex, money—all the usual ingredients of artistic corruption are present, but their exact proportions here are unclear. So are the alliances between different factions in the ballet. There is a strange cameo by David Hallberg, the Bolshoi’s first American principal dancer, who is shown whispering conspiratorially with Filin, possibly about what female soloist will dance opposite him in some upcoming performance.
As befits any portrayal of a great Russian institution, there are moments of dark comedy and shockingly outlandish opinions presented as scientific fact. My favorite scene is an interview in one of the gilded balconies of the Bolshoi with Russia’s bobble-headed prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, who comes off like a congenial version of Boris Badenov from Rocky & Bullwinkle. He admits quite readily that the Bolshoi’s soft power potential is fully exploited by the state. “The Bolshoi is ‘secret weapon,’ ” he says, pronouncing “secret weapon” in English. “Our secret weapon that we sometimes send to the U.S., the U.K., and the other countries . . . We definitely use it to achieve our goals. You can be sure of that.