In 2011, cinemagoers were shocked and somewhat bedazzled by Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky’s fictitious account of the inner-demons of a talented ballet dancer. In the film, Natalie Portman’s character gradually twists her way into deep-set rivalry with a competitor. Bolshoi Babylon, directed by Mark Franchetti and Nick Read, delves into the real life acid attack on Bolshoi’s artistic director, Sergei Filin. However, for both their apparent on-surface dissimilarities, fiction and documentary weave an inescapable picture of conflict and the willingness to do anything to succeed in this dog-eat-dog world. Creativity and art clash with political and commercial reality in a picture that demonstrates the mental state of humanity when one longs to emphasise rather than empathise.
In January 2013, the whole ballet world was shocked when the Bolshoi Ballet Company was involved in a scandal unlike any other. Artistic director and former dancer Sergei Filin had acid thrown in his face by a masked attacker. The attacker would later be revealed as ballet dancer Pavel Dimitrichenko, who claimed that Filin was attempting to squeeze him out of the company thus leaving him with professional insecurities. He was later sentenced to six years in prison.
You would think that considering the very specific subject matter, the documentary might take a deep look at both characters involved in the attack. However, the directors seem willing to forego any potential character interpretations and instead focus on backstage glimpses of ballet dancers rehearsing along with several interviews with the dancers themselves.
The film sets its stall around telling a lukewarm story of juxtaposition – the desperation of achieving one’s goals versus the initial awe-inspiring ideations of the theatre itself. There is an intriguing admittance by one of the dancers, Maria Alexandrova, who says that when Sergei Filin came on to be the new artistic director in 2011 he took up a tainted chalice. While it might seem like an obvious indication of Russia’s distrust of people in managerial positions, it’s perhaps even more exciting because of the risk posed by answering the question in such blunt and brutal terms.
For all its interviews and capacity for catching stylistic shots of dancers at work, it is the underlying and much more intriguing mentality of linking this attack to Russian politics that sets Bolshoi Ballet apart from simply being an adequate documentary about ballet. In the aftermath of the acid attack of Filin, the general director of the Bolshoi theatre in Moscow, Vladimir Ulin, was brought in to find and remedy all the issues within the company as a whole. Ulin’s position establishes not just his own power over Filin, but works as a slightly loose allegory on how governmental management is organised.
Thankfully, Vladimir Ulin isn’t just a stonewall bigwig sent from a position of power to hammer home someone else’s message. He goes from asserting utter dominance over Filin in one section of an interview to raspingly describing how his wife cried when she heard he had to go in and sort out the Bolshoi Company. You also feel a sense of inevitability when he jokes about how long he thinks he’ll remain in the position.
Bolshoi Babylon is impressive in its adherence to developing a clear picture for each person it encounters. But as a documentarian you often have to make a decision; do you focus on characters or analysis? The very best can do both but it’s a rarity. Read and Franchetti gloss over some of the potentially more intriguing analytical parts regarding Russia’s ingrained philosophies on professional life in favour of looking at the characters.
Bolshoi Babylon provides us with an awful lot to contemplate in its relatively short run-time. While Read and Franchetti might have been better placed to try and distinguish a more real, forceful identity for the film, it’s undeniably an interesting documentary that gives us plenty to chew over. In making this film there is also the possibility of a darker sequel looking at how anyone who deviates from Russia’s national cultural values is besieged by harassment. However, from the point of view of the Bolshoi Ballet Company, the film tells a horrifying tale of an acid attack and hints that if you scratch underneath the surface there might be some very meaty subject matter to digest.
Bolshoi Babylon is in UK cinemas from Friday, January 8.