One of Asino's donkey stars

    A Russian theatre giant brays against artistic repression

    19 November 2018

    Anatoly Vasiliev is a director regarded by many as the father of modern Russian theatre. Vasiliev is the founder of Moscow’s Theatre School of Dramatic Arts which he describes as his own ‘theatre – laboratory’. In 2008 UNESCO selected him as their World Theatre Ambassador.

    However, Vasiliev ran into trouble at home. ‘My work became too radical for the state,’ he says. His dedication to experimentation and pushing of boundaries put Vasiliev at odds with officially sanctioned theatre in Russia today which focuses on repetitions of classic works: Chekhov, Pushkin Shakespeare, etc. ‘There, everything is fixed. I would never make theatre like that,’ Vasiliev adds.

    First the basement building where his grassroots theatre company first began and where Vasiliev had built up his own library, museum and student hostel, was taken away, then his job too. ‘I was removed from my position in my school and unable to put on my plays in Moscow,’ Vasiliev explains. ‘I have worked in Russian theatre my whole life – yet now I can’t.’

    No longer able to perform his plays in Russia, in 2006 Vasiliev entered a self-described ‘exile’ in Europe. Speaking on behalf of the International Theatre Institute on World Theatre Day 2016, Vasiliev emphatically declared his support for all types of theatre, adding: ‘There is only one theatre which is surely not needed by anyone – I mean a theatre of political games, a theatre of a political “mousetraps”, a theatre of politicians…What we certainly do not need is a theatre of daily terror.’

    Now the director famous for making actors rehearse for more than three years has spurned theatre and human performers all together to create a three hour documentary starring a cast of donkeys.

    Asino (2017), his cinematic ode to the humble ass, is premiering in London on December 2 to mark the final day of Russian Film Week 2018 followed by a Q&A with Vasiliev. Inside a film studio near London’s Ritz Hotel, Vasiliev sits surrounded by surreal Soviet-era props from a secretive, nine-year film project he is currently working on. With his vigorous hand gestures, black peasant’s smock, silvery beard and a gaze as fixed and unblinking as the stuffed boar’s head on the table in front of him, the 76-year-old cuts an imposing figure.

    Anatoly Vasiliev

    Constructed as eight individual novellas, each with its own donkey-protagonist, the narrative of Asino winds its way through the lives of the animals from birth, through rebellious teenage years, right up to death. ‘The donkey is a very special creature,’ Vasiliev insists. ‘It’s a unique mix of obedience and defiance, both stubborn and meek: the core of its existence is a contradiction.’

    In Asino, donkeys appear as both domestic beasts of burden and divine creations: first comically chomping their own lips and bumping into their own reflections, then standing solemnly by a lone tree in the final chapter ‘Exodus’

    The film, rife with mythological and religious symbolism, is subtitled ‘donkey/allegory’. So which is it: a donkey or an allegory? Vasiliev is unequivocal: ‘The film is a reflection of my own life: it’s my autobiography, my childhood, my theatrical protest.’

    Scenes of a doe-eyed, pearly-grey donkey being slapped and shoved into a small cell before being shot dead immediately recall Vasiliev’s description of how his artistic freedoms were restricted, then curtailed completely. ‘They chased me out,’ he repeats flatly. ‘I’ve had to be incredibly stubborn; life (and my mother) made me stubborn.’

    Having lost favour in his home country, the director turned to Europe for both sanctuary and inspiration. Asino was filmed in Italy and features scenes from the country’s famous Palio donkey races, quotes from Italian authors, and references to Roman mythology. The film takes its name from the Italian for donkey.

    Before viewing it would be easy to pigeon-hole the film as an eccentric protest from an ageing avant-garde director. But if Asino were simply a metaphor for Vasiliev’s artistic struggle it would have needed to last only five minutes and star just one donkey. The film’s ability to capture, and hold, the imagination for almost three hours is a testament to its wide-eyed, long-eared cast.

    Russian Film Week runs in London, Cambridge, Oxford and Edinburgh from November 25 – December 2. For more information, go here