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TV dramas, films test political boundaries in Russia

October 08, 2018


a woman holding a magazine with a promotional ad for Russian comedy series House Arrest.—AFP
a woman holding a magazine with a promotional ad for Russian comedy series House Arrest.—AFP

MOSCOW: Russian courts are sometimes described as a theatre of the absurd, but it is television and cinema that have recently pushed political boundaries with their depictions of trials on screen.

A comedy series called House Arrest on a popular Russian entertainment channel has links to real, high-profile cases, while a new Leo Tolstoy biopic has parallels with opposition struggles today.

Several recent genre films have made mild digs at contemporary politics including The President’s Holiday this year, a mistaken-identity comedy about Vladimir Putin going incognito among ordinary people in Crimea.

The productions come as the Kremlin continues its crackdown on the opposition, and dramas tackling sensitive subjects are sometimes banned or simply never receive state funding to get made.

The weekly House Arrest on the TNT channel is based on the tribulations of a provincial mayor who is confined to his home after being caught taking a bribe in a sting by the security services.

Creator Semyon Slepakov said a friend who is currently under house arrest gave tips for added authenticity, but he refused to name names.

The real prison service even showed makers how to attach an ankle bracelet and gave the crew a special phone used by people under house arrest.

“House arrests were constantly being talked about,” Slepakov said in a recent interview in his office decorated with posters for US shows Seinfeld and Californication.

Top theatre and film director Kirill Serebrennikov has spent more than a year in his Moscow flat awaiting trial on fraud charges in a controversial embezzlement case his supporters see as a crackdown on artistic freedom.

Former economy minister Alexei Ulyukayev spent months under arrest in his mansion before and during his trial and is now serving eight years in a penal colony after being found guilty of taking a bribe.

Slepakov also cited the case of former defence ministry official, Yevgenia Vasilyeva, whose two and a half years of house arrest in a large luxurious flat awaiting trial for embezzlement prompted much mockery in Russia.

“The main thing for me was the humour in these house arrests, that people [detained] because of economic crimes were basically kept in good conditions,” Slepakov said.

But in a fictional twist, his mayor has to swap a glitzy mansion for the residence he claimed for tax reasons — a communal flat with blue-collar inhabitants and a shared toilet.

No red lines

The show was praised as “a charming satire of corrupt authorities” by Meduza independent news website but others criticised it for playing it safe with positive depictions of security services.

“Showing House Arrest is an obvious signal of what is permitted and what isn’t, i.e. who can’t be touched and who can,” wrote opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta.

The British comedy The Death of Stalin was blocked from release in Russia, while Serebrennikov’s production at the Bolshoi Ballet based on the life of gay dancer Rudolf Nureyev was postponed and apparently censored.

Showings of films and documentaries about the conflict in eastern Ukraine from Kiev’s point of view have been cancelled at the last moment or faced audience heckling and threats.

Slepakov said that no topic was banned in comedy, nor were there any red lines.

“I think those warnings in the West are quite exaggerated that in our country you can’t stick your head out because you’ll get bashed. I think we’re far from North Korea,” he added.

‘Russia surrounded by enemies’

Meanwhile, a period film based on the life of novelist Leo Tolstoy has proved unexpectedly timely, with obvious similarities to cases such as director Serebrennikov’s.

In The Story of One Appointment, the young novelist tries to save a lowly army clerk from execution for hitting a senior officer, pleading for mercy from Tsarist Russia’s disproportionately harsh justice system.

“You automatically link this to the present day and the trial of Oleg Sentsov,” wrote film critic Andrei Plakhov in the Kommersant Daily, referring to the Ukrainian film-maker, who spent 145 days on hunger strike after being sentenced to 20 years for “terrorism” in Russia-annexed Crimea.

In the film, the prosecutor argues that national security calls for harsh measures, saying Russia is “surrounded by external enemies” and torn apart by internal ones.

Director Avdotya Smirnova, whose husband Anatoly Chubais was a key liberal reformer in the 1990s, has urged the authorities to pardon Serebrennikov and other arts figures facing trial.

“Pardon them, please, set them free,” she said at a Russian festival.

But she stressed at a later presentation that any similarities are accidental since the screenplay was written before Sentsov and Serebrennikov’s cases.

“To be honest, I don’t feel delighted that the current situation makes the film so much about today,” she said.

“I had hoped we were passing such a fork in the road, but I hoped in vain.”—AFP

Published in Dawn, October 8th, 2018