'The Term (Srok)': Karlovy Vary Review

Marx Film
Occupy Moscow.

This topical documentary profiles the brave opposition leaders playing Russian roulette against Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime.

Recent history repeats itself as both tragedy and farce in this fly-on-the-Kremlin-wall documentary about the rising opposition movement against Vladimir Putin’s rule in Russia. Compiled from a series of documentary news bulletins that originally aired online, most of the footage here concentrates on the huge protest marches on the streets of Moscow triggered by Putin’s highly contentious presidential re-election in 2012.

Fast-moving and dramatic, albeit a little disjointed, The Term has educational value to anyone interested in modern Russian history and digital-age protest movements. Ongoing events in Ukraine have also given this story extra topical edge. Picked up for worldwide distribution by the UK-based TVF International shortly before it premiered at Karlovy Vary film festival last week, this feature-length experiment in guerrilla film-making should appeal to overseas festivals with political and human rights themes. After that, small-screen sales seem likely. A shorter edit is already available to fit hour-long TV slots.

Co-directed by award-wining cinematographer Pavel Kostomarov, journalist Alexey Pivovarov and theater writer-director Alexander Rastorguev, The Term is not just a straight exercise in reportage. Between camera-jostling footage shot in the thick of giant protest marches or violent clashes with police, the directors also deliver close-up access to hushed private conversations and political deal-making among the main opposition figures. There is backstage human drama here, plus bittersweet comedy and even romance.

If this diffuse narrative has a hero, it is Alexei Navalny, a 38-year-old lawyer and activist who recently emerged as one of the Kremlin’s most prominent critics. Described by the Wall Street Journal as “the man Vladimir Putin fears most,” Navalny has the authority and charisma to orchestrate large street demonstrations on a pro-democracy, anti-corruption platform. The film also covers his dubious conviction for embezzlement last year, when he was sentenced to five years in a labor colony only to be freed the next day in response to widespread protest. Navalny remains a high-profile rabble-rouser, though some commentators here warn he could simply become “Putin 2.0."

Other major players in the mix include the young opposition politician Ilya Yashin and the TV news anchor Kseniya Sobchak, a glamorous couple at the start of the film who break up by the end. A beautiful socialite sometimes unfairly likened to Paris Hilton, Sobchak brings the extra psychodrama of her family connections to the Kremlin elite—indeed, fellow protestors are only half-joking when they describe her as Putin’s goddaughter. Extremists from Russia’s far right and far left also make fleeting appearances, as do punk icons Pussy Riot and their celebrity supporters Madonna and Yoko Ono.

The directors take no obvious editorial line, sticking to a detached observational style throughout the film. That said, they are clearly not Putin sympathizers, punctuating first-hand footage from the barricades with clips of the Russian president striking comically homoerotic poses on hunting trips, piloting light aircraft or singing tuneless karaoke numbers to VIP guests including Gerard Depardieu. Most of these snippets are taken from Moscow’s notorious pro-government propaganda channel Russia Today. Inevitably a little inconclusive, The Term tells only half a story that is far from over. But even if this is not an ending, it could be a beginning.

Production companies: Aviator Production, Marx Film

Starring: Alexei Navalny, Kseniya Sobchak, Ilya Yashin, Pussy Riot

Directors: Pavel Kostomarov, Alexey Pivovarov, Alexander Rastorguev

Producers: Alexey Pivovarov, Alexander Rastorguev, Pavel Kostomarov, Sarkis Orbelyan

Cinematographer: Pavel Kostomarov

Sales company: TVF International

No rating, 83 minutes