Viral Freedom: Kirill Serebrennikov’s Leto and its Popular Appeal

While his film 'Leto' (Summer) is shown at the Rotterdam Film Festival, theater and film director Kirill Serebrennikov is in court, accused of fraud and embezzlement of state subsidies. He has been under house arrest since summer 2017 in an investigation that Moscow's intellectuel elite considers as a revenge for his avantgarde theater. According to literary scholar Ksenia Robbe Leto is more than a film about rock legend Viktor Tsoi who died young and became a cult hero. It's a playful work on the spirit of freedom that inspires hope.

leto van serebrennikov 1Cult singer Victor Tsoi (Teo Yoo, right) in Serebrennikov's film Leto

by Ksenia Robbe

Even before Kirill Serebrennikov’s Leto (Summer) was released in June 2018, the director’s latest film was triggering polarised opinions. Certainly, Serebrennikov’s arrest in October 2017, which had provoked protests against the state’s violent encroachment into the sphere of culture, created a politicised aura around the film. Unlike some of Serebrennikov’s earlier productions, such as (M)uchenik (The Student, 2016), that were more outspoken in their socio-political critique (addressing, for example, the hegemony of the state and the church), Leto does not seem to contain any obvious seditious intent. Perhaps that is the reason why the film had smooth, though relatively low-profile, runs at major Russian cinemas and was unhindered by outcries from ‘society’ or by state bans — as was the case with Matilda (2017) or Smert’ Stalina (The Death of Stalin, 2017).

Indeed, the film has the ability to speak to different publics, both in Russia and abroad: those who lived through the late Soviet stagnation and turbulent transition, those who can only imagine those times through listening, watching, and reading, those who admire the 1980s rock stars as ‘the last heroes’, and those who denounce them for being unoriginal and unsophisticated.

Conversations around this film, of course, do bring out such pre-conceived views, but the act of watching this romantic and sad, but also playful and eventually optimistic story can hardly leave anyone unaffected and uncharmed by its aesthetic recreations of a past that appears as both distant and close to our present. Above all, the act of watching how the protagonists create and fully live an alternative reality through music and art transmits a sense of ultimate freedom to the audiences, a viral freedom; it creates a feeling of connectedness and belonging. This is Leto’s major achievement.

The film tells a story of friendships and love relationships within the early 1980s countercultural milieu of the Leningrad Rock Club — focusing on the triangle between Maik Naumenko, the leader of Zoopark and an authority on the Russian rock scene (played by rock musician Roman Bilyk/Roma Zver’), his wife Natalia (Irina Starshenbaum), and Victor Tsoi (Teo Yoo), then a nascent musician trying to find his ‘voice’, and later the frontman of Kino. The story ends in the mid-1980s and only hint at Tsoi’s rapid rise to stardom (perhaps the most popular punk rock musician of the perestroika period) and his tragic death in 1990 (followed by Maik’s in 1991).

Since the film zooms into personal lives and relationships (Natalia and Victor’s brief romance being at the centre of the plot), it was immediately labelled a ‘biopic’, and its reviews have tended to focus on biographical details — discussing whether the facts and ways of life of its protagonists, and the whole spirit of the time, were represented correctly by Serebrennikov, who was not part of the Leningrad circle (even though he was connected to the late 1980s countercultural scene in his native Rostov). Boris Grebenschikov’s widely circulated comment about this film being 'a lie from beginning to end' has cast Leto as misconstruing the life and times of the Leningrad Rock Club and misrepresenting its protagonists as 'some Moscow hipsters who only think about […] (having sex)'. It is important to note that Grebenschikov — a living icon of late Soviet rock culture, who rejected the script of Leto and requested that his songs not be included in the film — made this comment during the presentation of his album Vremia N (Time N). In another conversation on this album and his current work, he referred to present-day social climate as 'demonic saturnalia'.

Even though in his interviews, Serebrennikov has expressed similar opinions, Leto avoids the politics of blaming. Instead, the film tries to imagine an alternative future by recreating scenes from a past that was rife with possibilities and by bringing these ways of living closer to the younger generations. Although they are speaking about similar problems, Grebenschikov and Serebrennikov choose different strategies: the former opens our eyes to our lack of engagement with grim realities, the latter inspires engagement by telling a story of how practices of a closed community came to be shared by larger social groups.



Leto: January 30 - February 2

About Him or How He Did Not Fear the Bear: January 27, 28, 30, 31

Core of the World: January 28, 30 - February 1

salt, pepper to taste: January 26, 27, 29

Sheena667: January 27 - February 2

The Lighthouse: January 28-29

Starling and Lyre: January 31, February 2

The Man Who Surprised Everyone: January 24, 27, 28, February 1


That Leto is a story about the past, and not a rendition of facts, is underlined by the script writers (Mikhail and Lili Idov). The film is partly based on Natalia Naumenko’s memoir, but it also works with popular imaginations, myths, as well as earlier filmic and photographic representations of Leningrad’s subcultures of the time (hence, the many allusions to Sergei Solovyov’s iconic ASSA (1987), Alexei Uchitel’s documentary Rock (1988), and recent online circulation of photographs and images of Tsoi in tribute to his would-be 50th birthday in 2017). As a postmodern creation, the film constantly looks in an imagined mirror and playfully speaks about its own form and artistic strategies. This happens most obviously when one of the characters in the community, Sceptic (Alexander Kuznetsov), breaks the fourth wall and comments, for instance, on the director’s choice of the Korean actor for the role of Tsoi: 'Doesn’t look like him' ('Ne pokhozh').

Also, the film’s style recreates the aesthetic of auteur cinema from the 1980s (Solovyov, Kieślowski, and Kusturica) and, in several intermezzo episodes, the aesthetic of self-shot home videos, with diary entries and animations on the margins. Moreover, the film zooms in on hand-made, self-created objects — the album covers which Maik draws, the wooden carvings Victor makes — and the sharing of these objects within the community (Victor gives a self-made wooden ring to Natalia; Maik gives a notebook with transcribed lyrics of Western songs to Victor). Hipster-ish? Perhaps. But this focus on material objects and their symbolic, emotional value helps the younger generation to relate to those times while still stirring the older generation’s nostalgia.

serebrennikov achter tralies foto facebookFilmer Kirill Serebrennikov in court, charged with fraud of state subsidies (foto V Kontakte)

Returning to the matter of personalities, most reviews and summaries have treated Leto as a film about Tsoi and have gone on to discuss the continuing importance of his music and image in contemporary culture. This concentration on Tsoi’s persona can be explained by the remakes, tributes, and re-mediations of the ‘last hero’ images around the time of his anniversary — some cases of this have been interpreted as an appropriation of Tsoi’s cultural capital by both nationalists and liberals. The protagonist of Serebrennikov’s film, however, is both familiar and strange (not only in the sense of visual resemblance). It is not the rebel storming in during the final scene of ASSA and singing the famous 'Peremen!' ('Change!'); it is, rather, the Tsoi before fame, before he became a cultural icon and a property of producers and audiences — the author of very simple but moving songs that are immediately recognised by everyone who hears them as speaking both to and about them. In a sense, his character is still romaniticised, but in a casual rather than heroic key. As a response to ASSA’s finale, the film ends with Tsoi singing 'Derevo' ('Tree') — a simple and intimate song about a plant that is 'doomed in this city' but is therefore even more cherished. The song is addressed to Maik and Natalia whose faces the camera zooms in on, but the entire audience is captivated and seems to not only know but also feel what Tsoi speaks about.

By focusing entirely on Tsoi, reviews tend to ignore the brilliant performance of Roma Zver as Maik, reflecting on his tortured personality and his professional quests. They also obscure the role and perspective of Natalia in the entire story. After all, the representations largely rely on her writing and memory of the two men, showing lesser-known episodes of their lives and sides of their personalities. And it is from her perspective in the film that we perceive Tsoi’s romanticism and authenticity and that we see Maik’s immersion into his music at the cost of family life. In this way, she appears not as a ghostly muse, 'my beautiful N' in one of Naumenko’s songs, but as a living and intriguing character. This introduction of a woman’s perspective may change how we perceive 1980s rock culture.

What is even more important, the film itself does not explore any single character for the sake of his or her personality; its focus is on relationships between the characters and between them and their environment. In fact, the community of people connected by their love for alternative music, by their self-reflection, and by their inner freedom is the main character of Leto. The significance of this film is that it offers viewers a possibility to observe this culture of communication and social interaction (obschenie) as represented on the screen — a culture which used specific codes, some of which have survived while others have become simply heritage. This means approaching tis culture from a distance, as an object of cultural memory, but also comparing this image of the past with our sense of the present.

A criticism often expressed in relation to late Soviet countercultures is that the alternative realities they created — as beautifully depicted in this film — were a means of escape, of detaching oneself from reality. Beyond simply depicting a variety of such states (as when punk musician ‘Svin’ (Alexander Gorchilin) enters a TV screen and jumps into the sea), Leto includes characters’ reflections on this. In one of the episodes, Natalia notices a film playing on TV in which her friends had performed English ladies when it was shot in Vyborg (a medieval town nearby Leningrad). Maik comments: 'Cardboard England on Baltic swamps – neither Sovdep (Sovietdom) nor the West, but some third space, which is quite comfortable'. But in other scenes, this ‘third space’ appears as less disconnected from the everyday realities and lives of common people than the protagonists would think. When Natalia and Victor jump into a trolleybus, their playful mood is transmitted to all the old and young who, as the music starts playing, begin singing Iggy Pop’s ‘Passenger’, almost beyond their will and understanding how this happens. With animated rockets flying across the space of the trolleybus, the vehicle turns into a place of carnival.

The spirit of freedom and experimentation spreads like a virus infecting and involving everyone around. Isn’t this exactly what happened when Zoopark and Kino’s songs (among others) became virally popular? By portraying this circle of musicians as a small laboratory of new sensibilities that would quickly spread towards the end of the decade, the film attempts to produce a similar popular appeal. Popular in the sense of creating an audience who would feel like a community sharing experiences and values. 

By re-imagining the past and, through its images and codes, speaking to our present, Leto performs a valuable translation and connects different generations. Moreover, it speaks the transnational language of music and visual culture and addresses international publics as well. As one reviewer observed, the audiences at the Cannes Festival, where the film received the prize for the best soundtrack, were humming Russian songs which they had only then heard for the first time. Watching Leto’s Dutch premiere at the Rotterdam Film Festival will be a chance to experience this sense of summer and a hopeful future. 

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