Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Documentary Fortnight ’10: Vlast (Power)

Over 200 former employees and directors of Yukos, the Russian oil company, have been in some way persecuted by the Putin regime. Unquestionably, the biggest fish among them is Yukos’s former CEO, the visionary Russian entrepreneur Mikhail Khodorkovsky. At one time the sixteenth richest man in the world, Khodorkovsky now resides in a tiny prison cell. How he got there is a chilling story of the not-so-new Russia, compellingly recounted in Cathryn Collins’s Vlast (Power), which screens during MoMA's Documentary Fortnight 2010 (trailer here).

Collins never confuses Khodorkovsky with a choirboy. She makes it very clear Khodorkovsky’s early years are still shrouded in mystery and unsettling rumors. However, she gives him credit for taking on the decrepit Yukos state enterprise at time when the price of oil was at an all time low, eventually turning around the company, making billions in the process.

Khodorkovsky was one of the original so-called oligarchs who largely reaped the benefits of Yeltsin’s privatization plan. Yet, he was a crony capitalist of a different color, becoming a prominent philanthropist and advocate of democracy in Russia. He also started championing corporate transparency, only to find himself behind bars shortly thereafter.

First-time documentarian Collins is admirably even-handed in her profile of Khodorkovsky, never overstating her case or simply appealing to emotion. While giving the incarcerated mogul credit for his business acumen, she is most impressed by his ability to identify and recruit smart, talented young people for his team. Of course, the implications of his story are clear. If a man with an estimated net worth over fifteen billion dollars is not safe in Putin’s Russia, nobody is.

Many of Vlast’s on-camera interview subjects participated at not inconsiderable risk to their well being. In doing so, they definitely convey an unvarnished sense of life in Russia today. Providing clear and concise historical background, Vlast provides the proper context for non-Russophiles and non-Russophobes to appreciate Khodorkovsky’s story. Still, given the long history of Russian and Soviet anti-Semitism, the question of whether Khodorkovsky’s Jewish heritage has contributed to his persecution is strangely never really explored.

Vlast joins the growing ranks of valuable documentaries doggedly raising alarms about the lawlessness of the Putin regime. Unfortunately, previous related films like Eric Bergkraut’s Letter to Anna and Andrei Nekrasov’s Poisoned by Polonium have largely fallen on deaf ears in the West. Given its reasoned tone and access to Khodorkovsky’s inner circle, Vlast should impress viewers concerned about the current state of the world. Highly recommended, it screens again tomorrow (2/24) as Documentary Fortnight continues at MoMA.