“I can’t reveal any details, but from what I’ve seen, I am absolutely certain that this is a purely political issue.” As Anton Drel speaks on the front steps of a courtroom, surrounded by journalists and cameras, he looks and sounds much like other lawyers for powerful men in trouble with the law. But Drel is in Moscow, and his client is Russian tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose case is extraordinary in multiple ways.
This according to the documentary Khodorkovsky, which is opening at New York’s Film Forum on 30 November, a night that includes a Q&A with filmmaker Cyril Tuschi and Mikhail’s son Pavel Khodorkovksy. The film itself is extraordinary in its own ways, shifting between talking head interviews and black-and-white graphic-novel-style animation, and between a not-quite methodical history of what happened when and Tuschi’s personal quest. This lively mix of modes means the film isn’t ever just one thing: while it advocates for its subject, it also questions his actions, and while it documents events, it also presents opinions on them, opinions that range from sensational to utterly sobering.
If Khodorkovksy’s conviction is not “purely political,” as Drel states in archival footage from 2003, it has been increasingly politicized, a point that only seems underlined by a recent ruling by the European court of human rights that the imprisonment is “not political.” While he was convicted of fraud in 2005 and sent to a prison in Siberia, different speakers see different reasons for the government’s pursuit, including the additional charges brought in 2009 against both Khodorkovksy and Platon Lebedev (former CEO of Group Menatep, which evolved out of a bank Khodorkovksy started in 1988), namely, embezzlement and money laundering. The efforts to keep Khodorkovksy imprisoned, the film suggests, have to do with political maneuverings by former (and perhaps future) Russian president Vladimir Putin (in the first instance) and then by Dmitry Medvedev (elected president in 2008): whether they are vying with one another or working together is not entirely clear.
To underscore the mysterious and implacable forces that make up Russian government, Khodorkovsky opens with a slow pan over a bleak, snowy landscape punctuated by incessantly working oil pumps. With this image, both material and metaphorical, Khodorkovsky indicates what’s at stake in the legal machinations: money. As the film shows, Khodorkovksy spent much of his early career making lots of it, with a series of ventures that initially exemplified Russia’s apparent embrace of some forms of capitalism. He was charismatic and smart, though his appeal is not only based in the fact that he is “good-looking,” according to an early business adviser, Christian Michel. “He doesn’t have this kind of physical presence because of his physical characteristics,” says Michel, who sits on an elegant sofa for his interview, “but because of an aura.”
That aura was powerful (an observation made as well in Cathryn Collins’ documentary Power), but it became increasingly threatening to the Kremlin as Khodorkovsky became exponentially wealthier and more incrementally more outspoken. His Yukos Oil Company (purchased at a relatively low cost, as the Russian government was reportedly endeavoring to ensure Russian ownership of such assets) helped to make Khodorkovsky the richest man in Russia at the time of his arrest at the Novosibirsk airport in October 2003. The charges against Yukos included failure to pay some $27 billion in taxes.
As the film illustrates the arrest in sharply contoured animation, Khodorkovsky is on a plane about to take off when armed and hooded security forces (representatives of the Russian prosecutor general’s office) storm on board. He’s loaded onto a van that screeches away, under ominous soundtrack music, the shapes of the plane, airport, and van increasingly abstract as the frame imitates an elaborate crane shot.
Such action movie effects are almost tempered by the film’s more conventional interview segments, in which Khodorkovsky’s former associates—his classmates at the Komsomol (the Communist Union of Youth), his first wife Lena Khodorkovskaya, and his early business partners, now exiled to London or elsewhere, as well as his son Pavel—who guess at his motives and also his effects.
As he became more aware of and immersed in Western corporate practices, he became richer and also less inclined to abide by Russian expectations. (At the same time, Joschka Fischer, former foreign minister of Germany, implies that the Bush administration had its own oil interests, which shaped its dealing with Putin and silence regarding the cases against Khodorkovsky.) A former business associate observes that Khodorkovsky agreed to Putin’s demand that he not be “political” as he expanded his financial power, and then found himself unable to keep that promise. As the film builds to its first climax—a face-off between Putin and on TV—it’s clear that Khodorkovsky’s support of opposition political parties and also his commitment to schools and charities are leading to a confrontation that the businessman can’t win.
By the time Tuschi arrives at his second climax—an interview with Khodorkovsky in a 2010 courtroom, the subject (and his friend Platon) inside a glass-walled cage—the film has made clear its own understanding of the complex politics at work. These extend beyond the case per se, and now seem to be affecting (however dramatically and however beneficially) the film’s release. Already made famous by thefts of prints when it made its way along the festival circuit this year, now Khodorkovsky is opening in just one theater in Russia, after other theaters reportedly decided to pull it. Though the documentary is not making an especially new argument, it is making it forcefully and engagingly. The form constitutes its own politics, pure or not.