'Citizen K' Director Sees Film of Putin's Russia as "Cautionary Tale" for Trump's America

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Alex Gibney and Mikhail Khodorkovsky

'This is a cautionary tale for what's happening in America right now,” says director Alex Gibney about his scalding portrait of the fall of dissident exiled oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the power politics of Vladimir Putin's Russia.

For Alex Gibney, looking at Russia is a way of understanding America.

The Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker, of Taxi to the Dark Side and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, has brought his latest feature doc, Citizen K, to Venice, where it premiered this weekend.

The film races the rise and fall of dissident exiled oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky as a window into post-Soviet Russia's rapid and violent transition from Communism to a free-market economy to what Khodorkovsky calls a “mafia state” under the rule of Russian President Vladimir Putin. One of the richest men in Russia, Khodorkovsky spent a decade in prison after he was convicted on fraud charges that he claims were politically motivated. Now in exile in London, he is one of Putin's most vocal critics.

"I think that we Americans are somewhat haunted by Russia and curious about what goes on there," Gibney said. "Every film that I've done has been a call to citizens to understand power and its abuses and do what they can to ensure that power resides in the hands of the people."

Gibney said he was initially drawn to Khodorkovsky's story following the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. He sees parallels between how Putin exercises power in Russia and the actions of U.S. President Donald Trump.

“Absolutely I see this (movie) as a cautionary tale,” said Gibney. “In particular where (in both regimes) facts themselves become things that are mere projections of power. You say whatever you want to say and, if you are in power, it makes those things true. That's what Putin represents and that is part of what the U.S.is struggling with today.”

Gibney said he tried to “fly under the radar” producing the documentary, which was made with no official cooperation from Russia. The director said he was denied access to official Russian archives. Much of the film was based on a series of “extremely long” interviews Gibney did with Khodorkovsky. “He was very patient,” Gibney said of Khodorkovsky.

The Russian dissident admitted there was some danger in speaking out against Putin in this way, but said he didn't regret working with Gibney on the film.

“I made my decisions and I decide to be free,” Khodorkovsky said. “For me freedom is when I can have contact with people I want to have and not have contacts with people I don't have to want to ... My role is to declare what I think is right.”

Khodorkovsky added that, in his opinion, Russia today is “not just an authoritarian state, it is a state that has been taken over by the mafia,” citing increasing corruption as well as the rise in political prisoners.

“To speak out, to talk about these issues is what we have to fight for in Russia today,” he said. “And it is something for which we pay a lot. We pay a lot in terms of suffering.”

Citizen K screened out of competition in Venice and does not currently have a release date.