Saturday, April 24, 2010

Tribeca ’10: Thieves By Law

The toughness of the Ganavim ba Hok or “Thieves By Law” is beyond question. Their international crime syndicate initially formed as a self-preservation society in Stalin’s gulags. If they could survive there, they are not likely to be intimidated by threats of mere imprisonment today. Indeed, the Thieves were the original Russian gangsters and their power has only grown in recent years. Three particularly colorful mobsters in good standing break the group’s code of silence in Alexander Gentelev’s documentary, Thieves By Law, which had its world premiere Thursday night at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival.

Back in the day, the Thieves By Law lived by a truly hardcore code. Completely avoiding anything that might tie them down, members never married, had children, or even maintained a permanent home. However, in recent years, they have let those prohibitions slide. In fact, the featured Thieves live very well in luxurious villas, raise families, and enjoy their eccentric entanglements.

One Thief is a product of the bad old KGB’s special school system, but has adopted the airs of an aristocrat to the manor born. Another Thief who gained unwanted notoriety when accused of fixing the Olympics, clearly shares his colleague’s taste for the finer things in life. Looking like the lovechild of Vladimir Putin and Skeletor, the youngest of the film’s three primary Thieves funds his own hyper-violent action movies, which naturally feature himself as the protagonist. Still, they all have the distinctive prison tattoos branding them as part of the organization.

Though the Thieves are understandably guarded at times, it seems that once Gentelev got them talking, they revealed more than they probably intended. Of course, he also talked to law enforcement officials, both in Russia and Israel. How each country responded to the law and order challenges they represent is also quite telling. Russian authorities still seem to be flailing about ineffectually, but when Israel discovered the Thieves were frequently marrying citizens simply to obtain Israeli passports, they cracked down hard.

While the Thieves’ history is clearly intertwined with that of Russia and the Soviet Union, TBL focuses almost exclusively on the present. Gentelev captures some frighteningly telling candid moments with the Russian mobsters. Deftly walking a fine line, he avoids glamorizing them, despite depicting their considerable wealth and bravado.

TBL is an eye-opening expose, produced with an entertainingly idiosyncratic attitude. Of interest to Russophiles, Russophobes, and true crime audiences, it is one of the strongest documentaries playing at this year’s festival. It screens again during Tribeca tonight (4/24), Monday (4/26), and Wednesday (4/28).