Leto: rock star biopic or political statement?

26 January 2019


Leto: rock star biopic or political statement?

26 January 2019

Kirill Serebrennikov had to finish his most recent film under house arrest

Russian filmmaker Kirill Serebrennikov was detained and placed under house arrest whilst shooting his latest film. Leto will be screened today at IFFR in his absence. The film is a historical portrait of a rock star in 1980s Leningrad, however in today’s context Leto seems like a call to keep the faith in times of repression.

When rock star Mike (played by pop musician Roma Zver) takes young musician Viktor (Teo Yoo) under his wing, a love triangle between Viktor, Mike and the latter’s wife Natasha (Irina Starshenbaum) develops. All against the backdrop of the rock scene in St. Petersburg (then known as Leningrad) in the 1980s, at a time when musicians had to have their lyrics approved by the government and the audience at the only rock club stayed neatly seated during gigs. The biopic Leto concerns Viktor Tsoj’s early career. Ultimately Tsoj would go on to be one of the Soviet Union’s most famous rock stars until his untimely death in 1990, aged 28, which catapulted him to everlasting fame and continuing popularity.

Leto tells this exceptional tale in beautifully shot black and white images. As if that wasn’t enough to captivate audiences, Leto is also a musical with animated elements. That may sound over the top, but it works – it’s decadence, born from a thirst for freedom.

Edited under house arrest

After being detained, filmmaker Kirill Serebrennikov (1969) edited the film under house arrest. He was forced to miss Leto’s premiere at the Cannes film festival despite a request from the French ministry of foreign affairs to allow Serebrennikov to travel to the Riviera town. Russian president Vladimir Putin maintained that “the Russian justice system is independent and I cannot influence it”. Worse was yet to come for Serebrennikov when, after a lengthy sickbed, his mother died and was interred in his absence.

Officially Serebrennikov and a number of colleagues are suspected of embezzling a state subsidy intended for a major theatre project. The detectives state that Serebrennikov took out the money himself. Which is odd, as that is exactly how the Russian subsidy system works: it pays out money to people after which they can invest it in the project themselves. During one court appearance Serebrennikov joked that he and his fellow suspects were accused of sticking to the rules.

Many Russians therefore agree that this is a political trial. Vocal protests took place outside the various hearings in the what is now popularly known as ‘the theatre trial’. The crowds outside chanting SHAME! SHAME! could be heard inside the courtroom.

I am a free person and will do everything I can to prevent this millstone from grinding me down.
— Kirill Serebrennikov

Waiting for change

How political is Leto in the light of these events? Tsoj the musician seemed apolitical. His songs were about everyday topics, but all had one thing in common: a desire for freedom. Tsoj performed his biggest hit Peremen (Change) in Sergei Solovyov’s cult film Assa (IFFR 1992) as a protest song after which itwas adopted by a variety of protest movements both before and after Perestroika. Although Tsoj always maintained the lyrics weren’t political, Peremen is still what people turn to for motivation in desperate times.

Perhaps Tsoj indeed had no political intentions, and perhaps Serebrennikov’s Leto is just a biopic about the former’s early years as a musician. However, the musician’s desire for freedom seems to overlap with the director’s. Serebrennikov thereby echoes Tsoj’s message: Change! We’re waiting for change!

Serebrennikov said it best himself during a speech in court to all his supporters: “I am a free person and will do everything I can to prevent this millstone from grinding me down. I will fight for the truth. And, it’s important for you not to be scared off, not to be disheartened in the arts or in life, do nothing you will be ashamed of later. Persevere!”

As sadly Serebrennikov is not the only filmmaker imprisoned and therefore absent at this year’s festival, IFFR invited Agnieszka Holland, film director and Chair of the European Film Academy, to provide a Freedom Lecture. “Authoritarian regimes use traditional methods to restrict the freedom and kill the spirit of artists, like the imprisonment of Oleg Sentsov. But they also use hybrid methods as in Serebrennikov’s case, limiting his freedom of movement to let him know that he is never independent, to make him feel the chains. We’re anticipating the trial with great unease; the accusations are absurd, but that hasn’t stopped Mr Putin before. Thankfully Kirill Serebrennikov’s creative energy will help everyone to overcome this situation.”

Watch the Freedom Lecture with Agnieszka Holland

Other blog posts on IFFR 2019