Directed by Cyril Tuschi
Would-be populists fantasizing about throwing American billionaires behind bars won't get much vicarious satisfaction from Cyril Tuschi's documentary Khodorkovsky. The title refers to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Russian ex-billionaire entrepreneur who was imprisoned in 2003 on grounds of tax fraud. The oligarch began as a leninist, but was emboldened by his connections (and by a new, trade-crazy Kremlin) to found Russia's first private bank, before acquiring the gargantuan oil company Yukos. After the arrest, Putin's government froze all shares in Yukos on grounds of embezzlement, swiftly ruining the company as well as Khodorkovsky. Tuschi uses his ascendancy to investigate he roots of Russia's present-day steroidal petrocracy, as well as the psyche of a character who only appears in archival footage. The film's strongest possible explanation for his arrest is a speech he made at an economic summit, deriding the Russian state's lack of transparency—mere feet from Putin. "We started the corruption process," he said; "we have to end it."
Tuschi has some difficulty resisting narrative impulse—witness the lifeless CGI animations of "Khodorkovsky" swimming in a pool full of oil. He also makes claims that aren't exactly substantiated (such as that 1/3rd of Khodorkovsky's support comes from people who find him attractive), and inserts himself into the action unnecessarily. He may have a deep-seated crush on the mystery of the material. But his interview work is extensive, ranging from former oligarchs to ex-KGB security guards to Khodorkovsky's son (bitterly stranded in Brighton Beach) to Siberian yokels. In voiceover, the director says he was advised by a top politico that "if I was to make an honest film, then he would recommend that I not make any film about Khodorkovsky at all, and that it would be better to make a film about the Russian landscape." (He also claimed, in February, that his offices in Berlin were raided, and computers stolen, days ahead of the Berlin Film Festival.)
Most interviewees explain the economy's transition out of the USSR in choice nuggets: "we pretended to work; they pretended to pay us a wage," for instance. Another explains how, when establishing a boarding school, Khodorkovsky was warned that "education is already an ideology" in the state's eyes. Exactly how Khodorkovsky landed himself—and not, say, an accountant—in a prison near the Siberian/Chinese border is a subject of intense debate; it's a scenario that's literally inconceivable in the United States. If not exactly broke, he probably won't have any power lunches lined up for when he breathes free air—an event currently slated for 2017. One member of the Kremlin's opposition party goes so far as to compare him to Garry Kasparov in terms of political capital: he'll return to the world as a martyr. During a final, nailbiting interview, Khodorkovsky maintains his innocence but confirms that he knowingly chose the arrest over exile. Why? While avoiding easy characterizations, this sprawling, continent-hopping film chases a story almost too Shakespearean to be true, and leaves room for a sequel.
Opens November 30 at Film Forum