Director’s Statement

Maxim Derevianko

In 1922, my great-grandfather, Florestano Belli, joined the orchestra of the Rome Opera House as first violinist. Almost a century later, in 2018, I was working in the same opera house, as a filmmaker. Everytime I found myself in front of the orchestra pit, I thought about this: Is it by chance that almost a century later, I’m working in the same place that my great-grandfather worked? And after him, my mother, as a prima ballerina, or is it destiny? I will probably never know, nevertheless, because of this, I was driven to make something special about this magical ancestral space. A documentary is what I had imagined immediately, and I decided to wait until the right production came along. I remember the day that I heard about the great Chinese activist artist, Ai Weiwei, coming to the opera house to direct Puccini’s Turandot. I knew beyond a doubt that this would be the perfect project for me, and that it wouldn’t be just any opera that Ai Weiwei would be mounting, but much, much more. 

Over the years, I had grown to know Ai Weiwei to be a symbol for freedom of speech, a fighter for human rights, a revolutionary who uses art in all mediums as a provocative tool to deliver his humanistic message to the world, and had developed an artistic kinship with him. Since I grew up in a family where freedom of speech was challenged, I felt Ai Weiwei’s message resonated, and was very close to mine. My father, Vladimir Derevianko, a Bolshoi first ballet dancer, had to escape from Russia in 1982, because his individuality and his freedom were threatened. Living closely with the notion that my father fought for artistic freedom, as well as Ai Weiwei’s mantra that, “Everything is art, everything is politics,” I was inspired to create this documentary about the power of art. 

From a director’s point of view, I have always been fascinated by the Butterfly Effect – the idea that a movement of a butterfly’s wing could be felt on the other side of the world. Essentially, that small things over time may have large, consequential effects. For me, making an opera is close to this concept. A composer starts with one note – a dot on a piece of paper, that is eventually given to a librettist, then to a director, and so on. Together they start from a blank piece of paper to bring their idea to reality. At the end of the process, there will be hundreds of people bringing that idea to the stage over time, all over the world. That message will be heard, and received by millions. 

Initially, when we started shooting in February 2020, I was trying to make a documentary about Ai Weiwei’s creative process with Puccini’s Turandot – his Butterfly Effect, but then something incredible happened. We started hearing about the Coronavirus that was slowly spreading, and suddenly the pandemic started. Theaters, cinemas, museums and art in general were the first things to come to a standstill, and eventually close. As Ai Weiwei says in one of his interviews in the film: “Suddenly it is like you build a home, and it collapses.” For a moment, art loses all its meaning and its power; art and the artists are challenged about their existence.Through all this, the documentary evolved, and became not only about Ai Weiwei’s creative process, but also asked the questions, ‘What is art? and ‘Why do we need it?” The production was back two years later, and of course everything had a very different taste. Putting this opera on stage was not merely opening a curtain, and playing music for a few hours, it was delivering a message of love, of freedom of expression and finally for artists being fighters, activists and symbols of these values, like all of Ai Weiwei’s works.