Monday, November 28, 2011

Putin’s Premier Political Prisoner: Khodorkovsky

Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder is now the chief lobbyist for Russian energy concerns. It may explain his less than vigorous interest in the political persecution of Mikhail Khodokorvsky, the chairman of the Yukos Oil Company and a leading bankroller of Russian opposition parties. It certainly helps explain how the Putin regime does business. Unfortunately, not even eight billion (with a “b”) dollars could protect Khodorkovsky from Kremlin persecution. German filmmaker Cyril Tuschi examines both the man and the dubious case brought against him in Khodorkovsky (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York at Film Forum.

As any Russia watcher knows, Khodorkovsky is complicated individual. He was once an ardent Communist, which is how he was allowed to take control of Yukos during the fixed privatization process. He was not just an oligarch, he was the worst of the lot by any standard of open corporate governance. At this time, he enjoyed close relations with the Kremlin. Around the turn of the millennium, he radically changed the Yukos corporate culture, embracing openness and capitalism. He also started supporting democratic reformers. He is now serving a prison sentence in Siberia, as the result of what Schröder reportedly called “a thing between men.”

Though fascinating and not a little bit scary, this basic story is all well documented. However, Tuschi uncovers new (or criminally under-reported) information (particularly regarding the suspicious murder of a provincial mayor making trouble for Yukos) and scores legitimate interviews with Khodorkovsky himself, mostly conducted via letters but also hurriedly shot in between sessions of the Siberian kangaroo court. Aside from his subject, Tuschi also talks on camera to almost all of Khodorkovsky’s close associates not currently behind Russian bars, notably including his insightful early business advisor, Christian Michel, as well as a surprising number of Russian officials.

Tuschi’s German perspective hardly burnishes the former Chancellor’s image, but it gives the film an intriguing twist. He also includes dramatic black-and-white animated interludes that unmistakably evoke the Orwellian nature of the Khodorkovsky case. A classy package, Arvo Pärt’s fourth symphony, which he dedicated to Khodorkovsky, serves as the film’s soundtrack. Even Tuschi’s commentary is rather sharp. About all that is missing is a happy ending. Indeed, the documentarian had to know he was onto something when his laptop containing the film’s final edit was “mysteriously” stolen from his home.

Frankly, Tuschi’s documentary is timely beyond the prosecution of Khodorkovsky, reminding audiences wealth cannot provide a lasting defense against a government wielding unchecked power, as the case in neo-Soviet Russia. In fact, the circumstances of his imprisonment are so egregious, Milan Horáček, the German Green Party Human Rights delegate to the European Parliament, adopted his cause, stating unequivocally: “One can’t distinguish between human rights for the young, old, poor or rich.”

More documentaries should aspire to be like Khodorkovsky. Never smug or snarky, it is a bold, and sometimes artful film that truly challenges the powerful, An important and engrossing work of big-screen journalism, it is highly recommended when it opens this Wednesday (11/30) in New York at Film Forum, with Tuschi scheduled to attend the 7:50 screening that night.