Khodorkovsky: Berlin Review

Berlin Film Festival - Khodorkovsky - 2011
Courtesy of Berlinale 2011
Informative documentary on jailed oligarch gradually tips from neutrality towards bias. 

The life and times and current plight of incarcerated Russian oil-billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky are given a thorough examination in this documentary.

BERLIN -- (Panorama) The life and times and current plight of incarcerated Russian oil-billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky are given a thorough examination in Khodorkovsky, an accessible behind-the-headlines documentary which became one of the most talked-about films at this year's Berlinale following the burglary of its director's office shortly before the event.

Though lacking anything incendiary or revelatory content-wise, and decidedly conventional in terms of form, the movie is a solid and engaging two-hour introduction to a fascinating man and his turbulent political context.

As such, it deserves extensive play at film-festivals -- not just those concentrating on non-fiction fare -- and curiosity about Khodorkovsky's case in particular and Russian top-flight shenanigans in general could justify arthouse exhibition in receptive territories. Exposure on Russian screens (large or small) is, however, likely to be highly restricted.

This is because, as the film makes clear, the vaultingly ambitious Khodorkovsky -- whose earlier career had charted an unlikely but silky-smooth ascent from ardent young Communist to pioneering post-Soviet capitalist to one of Russia's richest men -- made an extremely powerful enemy in the form of his nation's most powerful individual, president-turned-Prime- Minister Vladimir Putin.

The precise cause of the heavyweight pair's fallout remains a matter of considerable debate. Most reckon Khodorkovsky reneged on an informal agreement to stay out of politics, putting his resources behind one of the main opposition parties. Shortly afterwards Khodorkovsky found himself arrested, tried and sentenced to imprisonment in Siberia -- a sentence which, as a closing title-card indicates, was extended by another six years as recently as December.

While by no means a hagiography or exercise in tub-thumping, Khodorkovsky leaves little doubt that its writer/director/editor/cinematographer/producer Cyril Tuschi reckons his subject is victim of some very rough justice. His range of contributors is chiefly drawn from members of Khodorkovsky's family and former associates in the Yukos oil-company, with a smattering of more impartial observers including former German finance-minister Joschka Fischer. Occasionally amping up the thriller-style music a little too avidly, Tuschi nevertheless nimbly stitches together material from a disparate variety of sources.

Talking-head interviews are combined with contemporary news reports, slick snippets of computer-generated animation (which tell a stylized version of Khodorkovsky's exploits) and archive footage, along with sequences showing the director engaged in the complex filmmaking process itself, including a journey to Chita, the remote town where Khodorkovsky's jail is located.

Tuschi's semi-bumbling exploits add a Michael Moore/Nick Broomfield touch to the proceedings, and a welcome touch of humor in what's generally a brisk and business-like affair.

The first half is the most effective, Tuschi crafting a first-person documentary that isn't too subjectively personal, and which sketches in Khodorkovsky's powerful personality with ample shades of light and dark. The oligarch himself even "contributes" via genial, persuasively articulate extracts from letters written to Tuschi from jail (voiced by Harvey Friedman).

Later sections move from investigative journalism to a more campaigning tone -- "rich people have human rights too," we're reminded -- though when Tuschi and Khodorkovsky finally "meet" through glass at the latter's latest trial, it's an undeniably powerful moment.

By this stage we might well concur with one commentator who reckons "if he gets out of prison, he'll become leader of the opposition," the jail spell being described as a drastic "gambit" by a man willing to "sacrifice his queen in order to win the Endgame."

Indeed, depending on future developments Khodorkovsky may become an invaluable record of a key shaper of 21st century history. Or, as is perhaps more likely, a sardonic footnote to the Putin Era.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival, Panorama
Production Company: Lala Films, in conjunction with Le Vision and BR.
Director/ screenwriter/producer: Cyril Tuschi
Co-producers: Simone Baumann, Yelena Durden- Smith, Thomas Schmidt