Russian director asked to open French theatre festival despite travel ban

Kirill Serebrennikov has been chosen to open the Avignon Festival in France but is currently banned from leaving Russia until 2023. Organisers say they are sending a "clear sign" to the Russian government.

Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov was arrested in 2017 for what he said were trumped up charges of embezzlement.
Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov was arrested in 2017 for what he said were trumped up charges of embezzlement. Now he has been invited to open a French theatre festival. (Photo by MORRIS MAC MATZEN / AFP)

Celebrated Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov, currently banned from leaving his country, has been chosen to open one of Europe’s leading theatre festivals in Avignon, its organisers said Thursday.

“We don’t know for now whether he will be present in Avignon. We strongly hope so, of course,” festival director Olivier Py told AFP.

He said the programming of Serebrennikov’s new play “The Black Monk” at the Avignon Festival (July 7-26) was set two years ago, “long before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine”.

Serebrennikov, 52, was convicted in 2020 of embezzling funds at Moscow’s Gogol Centre theatre, where he was artistic director.

He has called the charges “absurd” and supporters say he was being punished for backing LGBT+ rights, and productions that criticised authoritarianism and homophobia, and often featured nudity and obscene language.

Py said there was no hesitation in maintaining Avignon’s opening night slot for Serebrennikov — “a major artist we have wanted for a long time”.

He added they were sending “a clear sign” by opening with a Russian director and closing with Ukrainian dancers in a show by Py himself alongside singer Angelique Kidjo.

‘My motherland’

Serebrennikov was first detained in 2017 and placed under house arrest without phone or internet access, accused of stealing more than $2 million in state funds allocated to his theatre.

He was released in April 2019 but told he could not leave the country until 2023.

He received a three-year suspended sentence in June 2020 and was soon after fired from the Gogol Centre, which he had transformed into a cultural beacon.

However, in January he was allowed to travel to Hamburg, Germany for a preliminary run of his new play, which is an adaptation of a short story by Anton Chekhov.

He told AFP at the time that he had “no idea” why the authorities had let him leave, since they had blocked previous requests.

He was unable to visit Cannes last year when his latest film “Petrov’s Flu” was competing for the Palme d’Or.

One of the film’s stars, Chulpan Khamatova, recently announced that she was in exile in Latvia after criticising the war in Ukraine.

Serebrennikov continued to work while under house arrest, receiving USB hard drives with videos of rehearsals and shows via his lawyer.

In this way, he was able to stage his play “Outside” at Avignon in 2019.

Despite his problems, he has vowed not to leave Russia.

“It’s my motherland,” he told AFP. “I am a citizen of the culture… I love it a lot. I have a lot of friends in Russia. My dreams are still in Russia.”

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French AOP cheese the latest victim of France’s drought

Your cheeseboard board might have to go without a classic French cheese for some time, after production was halted due to the impacts of drought. 

French AOP cheese the latest victim of France's drought

Production of Salars – a type of cows’ milk cheese from the central French département of Cantal – has been halted for an indefinite period, as France suffers its worst drought on record.

Across the country rivers have run dry and water restrictions have been imposed – and now the cheese-makers are affected too.

The Salars cheese is an AOP (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée), meaning the rules for its production are carefully defined – to be authentic, the cows’ diet must be at least 75 percent grass from pastures within the Auvergne region.

But as the drought continues, the normally fertile volcanic earth in Auvergne has gone hard and dry, and the grass has died – for the 78 AOP cheese producers in the region, their cows have not been able to graze for weeks.

READ MORE: Ask the expert: Why is France’s drought so bad and what will happen next?

“There is nothing left to eat at my place,” said Laurent Roux, a farmer at Gaec de la Calsade in Cantal, to Francetvinfo.

“In some places, the ground looks like ashes. It’s dust,” he added. Roux’ cows have not been able to graze since June 25th. 

While this is the first time a full production stop for Salers has occurred, it is not the first time the AOP has had to contend with challenging climate conditions.

Some farmers had to temporarily suspend production in 2017, and in 2019, the AOP requested a waiver to decrease cows’ share of grass in their diets to 50 percent rather than the usual 75 percent.

However, farmer and head of the AOP, Laurent Lours, said this option was not on the table this year. “It is not worth it because we do not even have 50 percent of the grass,” he told the local station of France 3

He expects production to drop by at least 15 percent this year, as the cheese is only produced on farms between April 15th and November 15th. 

READ MORE: More than 100 French villages without tap water in ‘unprecedented’ drought

For individual farmers, many will turn to Cantal cheese (rather than Salers), which has less restrictive regulations for its production. Doing so also means that they will earn less – a loss of €200 per 1,000 litres of milk.

As for consumers, they can expect a shortage in stores and increase in prices for Salers cheese.

The drought is expected to continue for the foreseeable future, with the possibility of impacting other cheeses and AOP products.

In Switzerland, producers of Gruyère cheese are also worried about a lower quantity of milk production and are considering bringing their cows down to the plains earlier than usual this season.

From the mussels in the bay of Mont-Saint-Michel (as a result of a lack of fresh water in the rivers) to the Espelette peppers being lost to high temperatures, drought will likely impact a range of France’s unique ingredients.