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Star Russian director in court on embezzlement charges

Russian stage and screen director Kirill Serebrennikov smashed taboos and revolutionised the Russian art scene in recent years
Russian stage and screen director Kirill Serebrennikov smashed taboos and revolutionised the Russian art scene in recent years AFP

Moscow (AFP)

Acclaimed Russian stage and screen director Kirill Serebrennikov appeared in court Wednesday on embezzlement charges seen by supporters as part of a crackdown on artistic independence under Vladimir Putin.

The 49-year-old, who smashed taboos and revolutionised the Russian art scene in recent years, appeared in the first open hearing of his controversial embezzlement case after spending a year under house arrest.

The enfant terrible of the Russian stage wore black jeans and purple sneakers and was accompanied by dozens of supporters as he arrived in Moscow's Meshchansky district court.

The courtroom was packed with journalists as judge Irina Akkuratova opened the hearing.

The award-winning director and head of Moscow's Gogol Centre theatre is accused of embezzling more than $2 million of state funding for a theatre project.

He has dismissed the accusations, insisting that the money was used properly.

His Russian and foreign supporters see his case as part of a growing clampdown on artistic freedoms under Putin and have staged multiple campaigns calling for the release of Serebrennikov.

The free-wheeling director fell foul of Russian conservatives for his daring productions including a ballet about legendary gay dancer Rudolf Nureyev at the Bolshoi where he used a famous full-frontal nude of the icon by photographer Richard Avedon.

- 'Imaginary services' -

Nikita Mikhalkov, a powerful Oscar-winning film director who is believed to be close to Putin, has said Serebrennikov should not have been allowed to hang the picture in the country's most important theatre.

Serebrennikov was arrested in August 2017 and his trial began last month with a closed hearing.

The prosecution claims that Serebrennikov and his three co-defendants -- Sofia Apfelbaum, Yuri Itin and Alexei Malobrodsky -- stole part of the funds allocated for the Platforma interdisciplinary modern art project between 2011 and 2014.

They are accused of doing this by signing fake contracts for "imaginary services" and then using the money "for their personal needs" while filing sham financial reports to the government.

Serebrennikov's defence last month asked the judge to call as witnesses the 400 people involved in the Platforma project, but said the request was refused.

While under house arrest, Serebrennikov missed premieres of two of his major theatrical productions while continuing to work despite a ban on phone or internet usage.

Shooting and editing on his film "Leto" (Summer) had to be completed without him.

But he managed to produce the opera "Cosi Fan Tutte", which premiered in Zurich Sunday, by recording videos with instructions on memory sticks which were then sent to Switzerland, and received rehearsal recordings back.

Last week Serebrennikov was nominated in three different categories for Russia's prestigious Golden Mask theatre award, with both of his theatrical premieres from last year up for prizes.

One was a modern take on a collection of small plays by Alexander Pushkin called "Little Tragedies" at the Gogol Centre theatre, the other was the acclaimed production of "Nureyev".

Serebrennikov's films have been shown at the Cannes and Venice film festivals.

In recent years he has criticised growing censorship of the arts in Russia, warning that "everything is returning to the most pathetic Soviet practices".

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