A gripping tale of corruption and glamour

 

JAMESON DUBILN INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL:ALL BUT THE best-informed of domestic pundits must feel a little daunted when attempting to disentangle the details of post-Soviet Russian politics.

Who are the goodies? Who’s wearing the black hats? From outside, it all looks like a mess of confusing interactions concerning mysterious meetings and grubby backhanders (not at all like Irish politics then).

The arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once the country’s richest man, on fraud charges further challenged our simplistic efforts to make a moral soap opera of the nation’s political goings on. Western news reports suggested that Khodorkovsky, who accumulated money through banking and oil, was being ruthlessly silenced by Vladimir Putin and his followers. But it does seem as if, in the years following the fall of Communism, Khodorkovsky engaged in a few genuinely dodgy practices.

Thank heavens for a gripping new documentary, playing at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival, by German film-maker Cyril Tuschi. An articulate fellow with a dry sense of humour, Tuschi confirms that Khodorkovsky committed few offenses of which a hundred other oligarchs – all still at liberty – were not also guilty.

“Of course!” he tells me. “His security guy said he is just like anybody else. Exactly like everybody else. But what’s important is that he never had anybody killed. I believe that. I hope I’m not being stupid.” Golly. What state is the country in when never having “had anybody killed” makes you one of the good guys? Over a taut two hours, Tuschi does a good job of clarifying what set Khodorkovsky apart from the other accumulators. He never indulged in vulgar excess. He set up various charitable organisations. But it was his disrespect for Putin that finally did for him. He supported the opposition. One extraordinary snatch of footage shows Khodorkovsky challenging Putin about corruption. Vladimir looks set to explode.

“I asked those very questions,” Tuschi says. “I don’t think that it was to do with supporting the opposition. It was a more general threat. Putin feared for this throne and he wanted to have Khodorkovsky’s company. He was the biggest guy in town. He was the best looking. He was a general threat to him.” So how on earth did a German film-maker, hitherto known for low-budget dramatic features, find himself making a film about Mikhail Khodorkovsky? Tuschi does have some Russian blood. But that does not seem to have driven his choice of project.

“Well, like most things in my life, I stumbled over it,” he says. “I was invited to a festival in Siberia and heard about Khodorkovsky for the first time. The city was so rich and I wondered who paid for all this. They said: ‘It was Khodorkovsky and he is now in jail.’ Nobody wanted to speak to me. I first thought that was to do with my lack of documentary experience. But it was to do with fear.” Western viewers will be interested to note the apparent naivety of some young people interviewed in the film. One well-educated woman – a dentist and DJ – seems utterly baffled by Tuschi’s interest in a convicted thief. One doesn’t get any sense that such people grasp the key question: why is Khodorkovsky in jail when so many equally culpable big wigs walk free?

“Yes, I included her because she really interested me,” he says. “She knows three languages. She’s intelligent. Her reaction really shocked me. But every person I talked to seemed capable of change. People are changing their minds. The media is controlled by the state and if you keep repeating that he is ‘just a criminal’ then people believe you. It’s like what Goebbels used to do.” Initial coverage of the film suggested that security officials may have harassed Tuschi during the making of the film. He is sure that he was followed. It all sounds pretty hairy.

Tuschi’s film presents a deliberately equivocal portrait of a slippery individual. From a Jewish background, raised by upstanding, moral parents, Khodorkovsky radiates an undeniable blast of glamour. “He has a saviour complex. He wanted to save the world,” Tuschi says. The story of his suppression makes for sobering viewing. But Tuschi is surprisingly optimistic about Russia. He believes that the recent protests reflect a genuine change in attitudes.

“Yes. That’s right,” he says. “Finally in December we were able to show it in Russia. It was really touching for me. People are starting to lose their fear. For five years they had been governed by fear and that is changing. I flew over with a bodyguard and I was happy things were not nearly as bad as I thought.” Well, he does still need to take a bodyguard. Russia continues to sound like a whole different country.


Khodorkovsky

JDIFF PICKS

FAUST

Alexander Sokurov is among the most admired film-makers of his generation. Following Russian Ark, Father and Sonand The Sun, the Russian director now turns his attention to one of the great moral allegories. 8.30pm Light House

JEFF WHO LIVES AT HOME

Jay and Mark Duplass’s latest lo-fi comedy stars Jason Segal and Ed Helms as two brothers coping differently with the modern world. Pat (Helms) has embraced the straight universe. Jeff (Segal) sits on the family couch in a tracksuit. The admirable Susan Sarandon plays mom. 8.30 pm Cineworld