Alex Gibney • Director of Citizen K
“I thought Khodorkovsky’s story might be an opportunity to talk about how power works in Russia”
by Kaleem Aftab
- VENICE 2019: American documentarian Alex Gibney discusses his Citizen K and tells Cineuropa a bunch of Russian tales at the Venice Film Festival
Citizen K [+see also:
interview: Alex Gibney
film profile] is a reference to Mikhail Khodorkovsky. In the 1990s, he made billions and was then sent to jail on the orders of President Putin, as part of a purge against oligarchs who bought Russian state assets after the fall of communism. Multiple award-winning documentarian Alex Gibney uses his access to Khodorkovsky to take a look at how President Putin rose to power and entrenched himself in the very fabric of the Kremlin. Citizen K [+see also:
interview: Alex Gibney
film profile] screened Out of Competition at the Venice Film Festival.
Cineuropa: When did you decide to make a film about Mikhail Khodorkovsky?
Alex Gibney: Two of my producers had met with him, and they wondered if I would be interested in it. Due to Russia hacking the American elections, I was very interested, because now we are haunted by Russia. We certainly don't know that much about Russia, post-Soviet Union. So I thought his story might be an opportunity to talk about how power works in Russia.
But you don't go into any detail about the election hacking.
I think there is a brief mention, but I purposely kept away from that. A lot of people are doing work on that – I may be doing work on that – but it seemed more interesting to focus on Russia itself.
Did you try to interview Putin?
I did try to. I met with Dmitry Peskov, his spokesperson, and requested an interview with Putin, but the request was declined.
Do you think Khodorkovsky is honest in the film?
I think he is honest. Maybe he is not willing to explore everything in a way that we would. He was such a big part of the 1990s, and he says instructive things. He says blatantly that the loans-for-shares scheme was unfair. But for him, that's the game. It was also interesting to hear him talk about Gennady Zyuganov, the communist candidate who ran against Yeltsin in 1996. He reacted to Zyuganov saying, “Don't worry, we will work things out; you won't own the industry, but I'll let you run it.” Khodorkovsky said they did everything to prop up Yeltsin, so he won. Thus, in his own way, he was very candid about how power worked in Russia.
The film shows how Putin tackled the oligarchs to gain popularity. You are quite sympathetic with Putin in the 1990s. Why?
I didn't go in thinking I would show this other side. What was fascinating to me was when we travelled outside the big cities, when we travelled to Siberia – it was fascinating to see just how popular Putin was. We didn't conduct a scientific poll; we were just walking around the streets talking to people, either with the cameras rolling or not with the cameras rolling. People were like, “Putin is our man; he’s going to make Russia great again.” That was fascinating to me. That was one of the most counterintuitive things I learned, so I felt it was important to put it into the documentary. There is something about Putin as a politician in the film.
The movie suggests that because of how capitalism came about, Putin, or someone like him, was inevitable.
I think Putin flipped it on its head. Putin used it as a great propaganda tool. Even today, the oligarchs are reviled, and that whole period is reviled. Putin uses memories of the 1990s as a way of incurring hatred towards those powerful men, but in fact, he runs a kind of gangster capitalism with “oligarchs 2.0”. This is a whole other group of oligarchs. That's part of the wonderful judo that Putin manages to perform: he flips the oligarch thing on its head even as he’s continuing it.
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