'Putin's Witnesses': Film Review | Karlovy Vary 2018

Who put the gremlins in the Kremlin?

Director Vitaly Mansky’s archive-heavy documentary chronicles the Russian president’s controversial rise to power in remarkable detail.

When Vladimir Putin began his first term as Russian president at the turn of the 21st century, Ukrainian-born documentarian Vitaly Mansky was one of millions caught up in the wave of pro-democracy optimism sweeping the world's largest nation. Almost two decades later, the bitterly disillusioned director now lives in self-imposed exile in Latvia, making films that are increasingly critical of Putin. Revisiting the rise of a modern-day Tsar with the benefit of hindsight, Putin's Witnesses draws on a strikingly intimate archive of behind-the-scenes footage that Mansky was able to shoot during this heady honeymoon period.

A buzzy world premiere in the official documentary competition at Karlovy Vary film festival, which runs all this week, Putin's Witnesses is a Latvia/Czechoslovakia/Switzerland co-production with strong selling points both for festival programmers and beyond. Mansky's record of prize-winning work should help its prospects, especially his jaw-dropping expose of life in North Korea, Under The Sun (2015). Given ongoing Russian interventions in Ukraine, Crimea and Syria, plus domestic suppression of civil rights and free expression, Putin's toxic reputation on the world stage should ensure a healthy audience for the film. But not in Russia, where Mansky fears it will probably never be screened.

Putin’s Witnesses is a mea culpa of sorts. The only reason Mansky has such a rich archive of footage to draw from is because, as former head of documentaries for a Russian state television network, he was commissioned to make several official profile films of high-ranking politicians. Mansky blends some of this material with more informal vignettes of his family shot at the same time, including prophetic warnings from his wife and producer Natalia that Putin will usher in a new era of Soviet-style authoritarian rule. As the director confesses in his softly hypnotic voiceover, this film partly reflects "the price I had to pay for assuming naively that I was just a witness."

Other witnesses paid a steeper price than Mansky. One of the film's most gently chilling scenes outlines the fates that later befell Putin's election campaign team, most of them politically liberal modernizers. Many switched sides and joined the opposition when they saw the regressive, nationalistic direction their new leader was taking Russia. Others went into exile. A handful, including media tycoon Mikhail Lesin and politician Boris Nemtsov, ended up dead at the hands of unknown assassins. Only one key insider from this group, former president Dmitri Medvedev, remains close to Putin.

Mansky admits he personally suggested and stage-managed certain scenes intended to humanize Putin, including a stilted reunion with a former teacher in St. Petersburg. But he never quite gets behind the implacable facade of the soft-spoken, cool-tempered, expertly evasive KGB veteran. A far more human presence in the film is ex-President Boris Yeltsin, the former mentor who initially radiates paternal pride toward his chosen successor as he gathers his family around him on election night. "If Putin wins, the freedom of the media will be assured," Yeltsin beams with unintended irony, plainly unaware of the crackdown to come. Mansky captures Yeltsin's dawning sense of wounded betrayal when he is snubbed and sidelined by his erstwhile protégé.

Assembled entirely from old footage, all yoked together with Mansky's melancholy voiceover and a quietly unsettling contemporary score by Karlis Auzans, Putin’s Witnesses is low on explanatory context. Repeatedly inviting us to read between the lines, Mansky’s ruminative, discursive, highly personal style is both strength and weakness. He appears to be trying to pinpoint hidden warning signs of Putin's totalitarian tendencies, but evidence is scant, mainly because the new president was still courting the West with pro-democracy mood music in his first term. "Democracies are more resilient and effective," Putin says at one point, sounding only half convinced. 

The closest thing to a smoking gun that Mansky unearths from the vaults is Putin's firm insistence on restoring many contentious Communist-era symbols, including a reboot of the old Soviet national anthem. Summoning Mansky to the Kremlin for a late-night discussion on this divisive decision, the president explains that he wants the Russian people to remember the Soviet Union with more pride and less shame. “Think about the victory in World War II rather than the gulags," he suggests with a mirthless crocodile smile. Not exactly a knockout punch, but one quietly revealing detail in a film laden with ominous clues for historians to study. It is impossible to imagine any other director getting this much unguarded access ever again.

Production companies: Studio Vertov, Golden Egg Production, Hypermarket Films
Producer: Natalia Manskaya
Editor: Gunta Ikere
Music: Karlis Auzans
Sales company: Deckert Distribution

Venue: Karlovy Vary Film Festival

102 minutes