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LONDON — The director of a feature-length documentary about the murder by radioactive polonium poisoning of a former Russian spy — set to screen Saturday at the Festival de Cannes — on Wednesday denied that news of its official selection status had been delayed for political reasons.
Russian filmmaker Andrei Nekrasov said that Tuesday’s announcement by Cannes selectors that the docu, “Rebellion: The Litvinenko Case,” would screen was not connected with a decision the same day by British law officials to formally charge a key suspect, Andrei Lugovoy, with the murder in London in November of Alexander Litvinenko.
Nekrasov, who is finalizing subtitles on the docu at Berlin’s Babelberg Studios before leaving for Cannes — where he, producer Olga Konskaya and Litvinenko’s widow Marina will present the film at the Palais des Festivals’ Bunuel Theater — said he had been informed of the festival’s decision to accept the film well before it opened but was sworn to silence.
“I don’t think that this week’s announcement is related to the murder charges (against Lugovoy),” Nekrasov said. “Cannes told us two days before that they would announce the film. My reading of the timing is that perhaps they had concerns about the content of the film and repercussions. The festival still had reasons to keep quiet, even without the murder charges.”
Litvinenko died three weeks after drinking a cup of tea laced with a fatal dose of polonium 210 in a cafe in London, where he had been living in exile since fleeing Russia after publicly accusing state security services with complicity in a series of apartment block bombings in Moscow.
Litvinenko’s lingering and agonizing death from a poison that was only diagnosed days before he died dominated international media for weeks, and a letter he wrote before he died accusing Russian President Vladimir Putin of ordering his assassination helped create a diplomatic rift between Britain and Russia that has yet to improve.
Nekrasov had been working closely with Litvinenko on a film about Putin, how he came to power and corruption for several years and filmed a series of intimate interviews until the day he died.
Cannes’ decision to take the film had come as a surprise, Nekrasov said.
“When Cannes issued its call for entries, we only had a rough cut of a film in Russian with — at that time — incomplete and unprofessional subtitles, but the festival gave us first a week and then some more time to get it ready,” Nekrasov said from Berlin.
“It was still not ready and was virtually incomprehensible, so we were not surprised that the press conference announcing the official selection came and went without us; we were certain we were not going to Cannes this year.”
Confirmation finally came that Cannes was accepting the film came just 10 days before the festival opened May 16,
“I was moved to tears when they told me,” said Nekrasov, who divides his time between London, St. Petersburg and Berlin.
“The film is very controversial,” he said. “It is not only political, but also a work of art. I am amazed that Cannes is so courageous. We knew that the festival was preparing a print 10 days before the opening, but were told on the understanding that there were no leaks to the press whatsoever,” he said.
Nekrasov said “Rebellion” contained new and previously seen footage.
“It’s very different in style to my television documentary ‘My Friend Sasha,'” he said, referring to a shorter documentary screened in the U.K. earlier this year by the BBC. “Friends have said the new film is more like a novel with characters used not only for informative but emotional and narrative value. It is a story of betrayal, regret, love and exile.”
Audiences should prepare for an emotional roller coaster, whatever their opinion about Litvinenko’s murder, the director said.
“I want people to feel for Litvinenko, to sense that even in these days of so many tragedies that maybe this is something special. That here is someone dying for his beliefs, in a way as a martyr. “I want them to see the film and say ‘enough is enough’. Human life is not disposable.” Nekrasov said, before adding that in his darker moments he fears for his own safety.
“I am not a hero, but I love what I do,” Nekrasov said. “I am a filmmaker, and in these days a Russian filmmaker and artist should take a stance. Too many Russian filmmakers today like to say they are not interested in politics; that it is just a dirty game.”
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