Girl power: Liv LeMoyne, Mira Grosin and Mira Barkhammer in We Art the Best!
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Lukas Moodysson, the Swedish director back from the dead

Lukas Moodysson, director of Lilya 4-Eva and Container talks about his new (and most accomplished) film We Are the Best! in which three Stockholm teenagers form a punk bank.

Lukas Moodysson is lounging in the lib­rary of a London hotel wearing an all-black ensemble – wide-brimmed hat, cardigan, shirt, trousers, boots. The Johnny Cash effect is undermined only by the plump, salmon-pink handbag sitting at his feet. I remark primly that I thought it was a woman’s bag. “Well, it is,” he says, stroking his neat, silver-laced beard. “But I am a woman.”

Like much of what the 45-year-old film-maker says, this comes off as humorous without technically being a joke. Most of us will simply be glad he’s in a jaunty mood. It’s doubtful that a grouch could have made a movie like We Are the Best! (in cinemas now), a riotous and touching comedy about three 13-year-old girls – the owlish Bobo (Mira Barkhammar), her pixie-faced, mohawk-flaunting chum Klara (Mira Grosin) and the demure Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne) – who form an after-school punk band in 1980s Stockholm. An inability to play their instruments proves to be no obstacle at all. They’ve got it where it counts: snarling energy, naive charm, optimism. That goes double for the movie.

It’s been more than a decade since anyone had a good time at a Lukas Moodysson film. His finest picture, Together, set in a commune of 1970s Swedish hippies and their children, was released in 2000. Since then, it’s been wall-to-wall misery: trafficked child prostitutes (Lilya 4-Ever), the amateur porn industry (A Hole in My Heart), the unmanageable chaos of modern life (Container), conflict both marital and global (Mammoth). When the trailer for We Are the Best! was unveiled at the London Film Festival the relief was profound: could this be Together again? Sure enough, the new film thrives on the same mixture of nostalgia and scepticism, merriment and melancholia. Based on the graphic novel by Moodysson’s wife Coco, it couldn’t be watched in any state other than complete delight.

How must it be, I wonder, finally to have made another movie that everyone actually likes? “I don’t think everyone likes it,” he chuckles. But what beef could someone have with such an exuberant, compassionate picture? “Ah, now you are asking me to repeat negative criticism!” A few home-grown critics, he says, tend to review him rather than his films. In Sweden, Moodysson was an established poet before he branched out into cinema in 1998 with Fucking Åmål (called Show Me Love in the UK), a perceptive love story about two provincial teenage girls. At Sweden’s prestigious Guldbagge film awards, where it scooped all the main prizes, Moodysson gave a long and inflammatory anti-elitist speech before leaving the stage with his middle finger raised to the booing crowd.

A contrarian he may be. But that’s not the whole story. He is also suspicious of a consensus, even one that works in his favour. The popularity of We Are the Best! seems to faze him slightly. “I’m surprised when anyone likes what I’ve done. My feeling about life is that there is always a combination of answers to any question, so it’s strange when everyone agrees. I know life is more complicated than that.”

He has spent his career wrestling with this polarity. As far back as Fucking Åmål horror was munching away at the edges of his work: that film was originally conceived as a tale of two sisters living next door to a serial killer. By the time of A Hole in My Heart, with its close-up dissections of artificial vaginas, and a climax in which one character vomits into the mouth of another, despair appeared to have consumed him. Not so, he insists. “I wrote parts of it while on holiday in Greece with my wife and our children. We had just had another baby and I was feeling so happy. Sometimes it takes happiness to open you up to terrible things, and vice versa.”

Not that he wrote the new script with his head in a noose. While teaching at film school in Helsinki, he asked his class to make a hopeful film about the difficulties of life. “I decided with We Are the Best! to give that assignment to myself – to show that life can be shit but the possibilities are out there.” It also marks his return to cinema after taking four years off to write two novels following the death of his father. “It wasn’t like I said, ‘This is over.’ But I felt very tired of making films. My father died unexpectedly of a heart attack and I was at the hospital. It was only five minutes after he died and he was lying there – this is a funny story even though it’s about dead fathers – and I thought, ‘I have no interest in bringing a camera here. I just want to go home and write.’ So I wondered if maybe I’m not a film director at all because this enormous experience didn’t make me want to make a movie.”

The hiatus did him good, and We Are the Best! feels zingy and fresh. “I wanted to do something where people jump up and down and scream into microphones and play drums and survive and their parents might not care about them but they still have a good time.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double

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Serebrennikov's arrest is another step in the erosion of Russia's cultural freedom

The detained director is widely known for challenging more conservative forms of theatre.

“The play opens amid scenery which has already become, it seems, painfully familiar: a room with official furniture and a cage, to which they lead a man in handcuffs.” Thus reads a RIA Novosti review of Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov’s staging of Lars Von Trier’s The Idiots in Moscow in 2013.

On Wednesday, it was the 47-year-old Kirill Serebrennikov who was led to the cage in handcuffs. Crowds gathered outside chanting “Kirill, Kirill” and “freedom” as he took the stand in a Moscow courtroom after being detained on suspicion of embezzling 68 million roubles (£900,000) of government funds, according to reporters at the scene.

Serebrennikov was placed under house arrest until 19 October awaiting trial. If found guilty, he could face up to ten years in jail. The investigation alleged that house arrest was necessary as Serebrennikov has a Latvian residence permit and real estate abroad. However, authorities had already confiscated his passport at the beginning of August, the director said. Travel abroad would be impossible.

The investigation into Serebrennikov reflects the incremental – yet cumulatively extremely effective –  erosion of freedom of expression that has pervaded Russian cultural politics in recent years. Russia’s legal system implicates vast swathes of its residents, and some have suggested that the processes involved in securing funding for the theatre are near-impossible to navigate.

“The laws governing Russian theater financing are so arcane and contradictory that even a mathematical genius could not run a theater and abide by the law,” theatre critic John Freedman wrote in The Moscow Times in June, as the case started to develop. The investigation is also an example to others who continue to challenge the status quo; locals have spoken of “an atmosphere of fear and hysteria” among (what’s left of) the country’s leading liberal cultural figures.

Serebrennikov was initially remanded on Tuesday by the Russian Investigative Committee’s special investigations department. He has himself previously been critical of artistic censorship and called the accusations against him “absurd”. Supporters are now beginning to draw parallels with Stalinist-era crackdowns.

“Director Meyerhold was not arrested by the NKVD, but by Stalin. Director Serebrennikov was not arrested by the Investigative Committee, he was arrested by Putin,” renowned author Boris Akunin wrote in a public Facebook post on Tuesday. “Russia has moved into a new state of existence with new rules.”

Other key cultural figures have stood by Serebrennikov to support freedom of expression and grimly reflect on present-day realities. Writer and director Viktor Shenderovich told television station Telekanal Dozhd (TV Rain) that even global fame cannot “save you from the interests of a repressive state if it decides that it is in its interests to put you on the ground face down.”

Thousands of people signed a petition demanding his liberation. “Artists should have the right to express their opinion freely. That is guaranteed by our country’s Constitution,” the letter signed by more than 14,300 people as of midday on Wednesday said.

The case, in theory, revolves around funding awarded to a theatre project known as Platform between 2011 and 2014. Three other former colleagues of the director were also detained in connection with the case. However, Serebrennikov’s supporters believe there is more to the story.

Serebrennikov is widely known in Russia for challenging more conservative forms of theatre. He is the head of the Gogol Centre – one of Russia’s more avant-garde institutions. It was here that The Idiots was staged. His originality and talent is widely hailed on the Moscow theatre scene.

At the beginning of July, Serebrennikov’s staging of a ballet exploring the life and work of gay or bisexual ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev was postponed. The ballet, according to the New York Times, explored homosexuality in Nureyev’s art and his battle with AIDS, which killed him in 1993.

In a subsequent press conference, the Bolshoi confirmed the postponement of the ballet, with the theatre’s director general Vladimir Urin saying “the ballet was not good” and that he and others were “very depressed” by what they saw. Urin did not state that the homosexual themes played any part in the decisio,n.

On 7 August, Serebrennikov told German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung that his passport had been seized by authorities. At the same time, he said Urin had contacted him to say that Nureyev would be shown in December this year.