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MOSCOW — The harsh realities of life in Russia are exposed in two powerful documentaries that will screen for the first time in the West this weekend in Amsterdam at IDFA, one of the world’s leading documentary film festivals.
Putin’s Games, which reveals the ugly truth behind the Sochi Winter Olympics — due to open in the sub-tropical Russian Black Sea resort in February — gets its world premiere Sunday night.
And The Condemned — a study of the lives of inmates of a prison colony in the Urals that houses some of Russia’s worst murderers, including those whose sentences were commuted to 25 years when the country abandoned the death penalty — will be seen for the first time beyond its borders.
Putin’s Games, a feature-length co-production between Germany, Israel and Austria directed by Russian-born Israeli émigré Alexander Gentelev, reveals the massive scale of government corruption behind the most expensive Olympic games ever — estimated to have cost $51 billion.
It details the money the Kremlin spent on lobbying to secure the games for Sochi, the Olympic law that allows the seizure of private property and the reason why Russian president Vladimir Putin was so keen to host the games in a sub-tropical resort where snow and freezing temperatures cannot be guaranteed.
Dubbed a “politically motivated” attach on the ideal of the games by the International Olympic Committee — which refused to sanction the use of the word “Olympic” in its title — the film has yet to be seen by Russian officials.
That has not stopped shadowy figures in the Kremlin from trying to prevent its wide release: the film’s German producer, Simone Baumann, was approached three times in Moscow by someone she knows to have close contacts with Russian officials going back to Soviet times with offers to buy all rights for a sum more than double the film’s €360,000 ($480,000) budget. A fluent Russian speaker who studied in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, Baumann refused to discuss the proposals.
The film features a building contractor who was threatened that he would be “drowned in blood” if he did not pay kickbacks on multimillion-dollar contracts. The man, Valery Morozov, went public with his complaints about corruption by Kremlin officials before fleeing to the West with his wife and family. He now lives in London, where he has applied for asylum, and lobbies against corruption in Russia.
The doc also exposes the human and environmental cost of the rush to building forced through under draconian laws that have given officials free rein to seize property and privatize public land. The film was shot before the recent notorious anti-gay laws became a factor in the controversy around the games.
Attempts by Russia’s Olympic Committee and state television channels to access the film’s trailer — which was screened at MIPTV in Cannes in April, where the film won a best pitch award — were also ignored.
“The film is a co-production with no Russian money behind it, and we have no obligation to show it to anyone before tonight’s premiere,” said Baumann.
“Every leader has a mega-project,” says Gentelev. “For Putin it is the Sochi Olympics. Sochi is his favorite spot to relax; why shouldn’t the winter games be held there? Trust, it’s the sub-tropics. So what? The International Olympic Committee agrees with him.”
The film is backed by Franco-German public broadcaster ARTE and will be screened on the channel in February just before the games open. The producers are also in talks with the BBC and other major European and international broadcasters. Russian audiences will get one chance only to see the film when it is screened Dec. 6 at Moscow’s ArtDocFest.
The Condemned is produced by British journalist and broadcaster Mark Franchetti.
Franchetti, a long-serving Moscow correspondent for the London Sunday Times, spent months negotiating exclusive access to the prison, deep in the heart of a vast forest around 500 miles north of Yekaterinburg in the Urals.
“It took us six months just to get permission to go the prison for the first time, in September last year,” Franchetti told The Hollywood Reporter. “When we needed to go back for more filming that took a further three months. I’d first been there in 2000 and had good contacts with the regional governor, with whom I had established a rapport at that time.”
The 80-minute film features details interviews with some of Russia’s most brutal murderers, their families and the prison governor — a firm proponent of the death penalty — charged with keeping them alive and inside prison.
It received its world premiere last June at the Moscow Film Festival and is due to air next year on Russia’s 24_Doc channel. The film is due to air on the BBC’s premier documentary strand Storyville next year, and Franchetti is in talks with Sundance to take it to Park City in January.
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