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Is a documentary less believable if it doesn’t look like one? That’s among the questions raised by Israeli filmmaker Vladi Antonevicz’s harrowing account of his undercover investigation of Russian neo-Nazi groups suspected of a horrific double murder. Unspooling like a thriller crime procedural, Credit for Murder is riveting viewing even as it tests the boundaries of nonfiction filmmaking. The documentary was recently showcased at Toronto’s Hot Docs festival.
The filmmaker embarked on his perilous quest after becoming intrigued by a video that had gone viral on YouTube. It depicted in graphic detail the murder by white supremacists of two men in a wooded area, one of them beheaded, with a Nazi flag flying overhead. The Russian police declined to investigate, claiming that the video was a hoax. But eventually a Muslim immigrant living in a rural area saw the video and identified one of the victims as his son.
This was the impetus for Antonevicz to travel to Russia and, with the help of his local friend Shuravi, investigate the crime by pretending to be a neo-Nazi himself. Needless to say, it was an audacious tactic for an Israeli Jew, and his friend tried to talk him out of it.
“An unsolved murder is always unsolved for a reason,” Shuravi says with ominous solemnity.
As the story unfolds, with rival neo-Nazi organizations and numerous leaders jockeying for power, the mystery becomes ever more complicated, especially when Antonevicz figures out that the video was doctored to change the gruesome events’ timeline. Meanwhile, he manages to ingratiate himself with the repellant figures he’s investigating, to the degree that they willingly talk on camera about their nefarious exploits. That doesn’t mean that they don’t subject him to a series of tests, including shooting at him at point-blank range while he’s wearing a bulletproof vest.
Despite the predominant grimness and scariness of the material, the film does include moments of black humor, such as a scene of the neo-Nazis posing for a group picture while complaining about their required masks and failing to properly align the angle of their arms for a Nazi salute.
The filmmaker posits numerous theories about the spike of hate crimes that occurred in Russia, including 49 murders of foreigners, in the months leading up to the 2008 elections. Among the more provocative is that Vladimir Putin tacitly encouraged the violence as a means of frightening the populace into voting for his handpicked candidate, Dmitry Medvedev.
The film does get bogged down at times with its barrage of facts and theories. And the director has taken the highly unusual approach of filming the proceedings like a narrative feature, including beautifully composed cinematography, a portentous musical score and dialogue that often feels carefully scripted. At times the polished style makes us question the veracity of the proceedings, but the violent hatred and prejudice displayed by many of the film’s principal subjects feels utterly and terrifyingly real.
Venue: Hot Docs
Director: Vladi Antonevicz
Producers: Vladi Antonevicz, Gabriel Romanov
Director of photography: John Cherny
Editor: Neta Braun
Not rated, 87 minutes
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