DIR/WRI/PRO: Cyril Tuschi • Gary Barber, Roger Birnbaum, Jonathan Glickman, Paul Taublieb • DOP: Peter Dörfler, Eugen Schlegel, Cyril Tuschi • ED: Salome Machaidze, Cyril Tuschi • Cast: Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Pavel Khodorkovsky, Marina Khodorkovskaya

At one point in Cyril Tuschi’s documentary Khodorkovsky, a human rights lawyer is surprised that at the age of 60, for the first time in his life, he has somehow found himself fighting the cause of the rich. He is defending the human rights of Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once the richest man in the world under forty. Perhaps the audience will relate to this feeling of surprise while watching this film. He is imprisoned in a Siberian camp in 2003, charged with tax evasion at the height of his powers, but the film’s detailed exploration of corruption in Russia attempts to suggest that the arrest was unjust and politically motivated. It is a life that is full of bizarre twists and turns: his sudden rise to wealth after specialising as a science student, his conversion from devoted communist to massively successful capitalist, his shift in support from Putin to the political opposition, to his imprisonment in Siberia.

Tuschi elects to minimise Khodorkovsky’s on-screen appearances, which only adds to the mystery surrounding the man. Even in old student pictures from the 1980s, there is something indubitably interesting and charming behind Khodorkovsky’s eyes. One talking head refers to the ‘aura’ that was present when he entered a room and it is jokingly suggested that his supporters are split into three camps: human rights groups, neo-liberals, and those who think that he’s good looking. It’s the kind of over-the-top rhetoric that one would expect from Soviet propaganda, and there are times where the film worryingly approaches this territory.

Perhaps most mysterious of all is that despite being forewarned of the arrest, he made no attempt to avoid it.There is a strong suggestion from several people that he saw imprisonment as a means to redeem his image as an oligarch and to further a possible political career. One assumes that he foresaw a much shorter sentence, but one young opposition politician claims that if Khodorkovsky was free, he could well be the head of the opposition movement. It’s a welcome level of analysis that the film otherwise sadly lacks.

The choice to focus on his mystique is not without consequence. Even though his mother, wife, and son, (who looks exactly like him, down to a shared smile) are all interviewed, we do not get a defined sense of him as a man. The only personal traits that are relayed to us are those that directly relate to his career. Those looking for open, revealing access to his personality will be disappointed, but the mystery makes for a more interesting film.

Due to a predictable lack of co-operation from officials in the Russian government, the majority of those interviewed for the film were once aligned with Khodorkovsky, and are generally sympathetic to him. An exception to this is the presence of Igor Yurgin’s, economic advisor to President Medvedev, who provides a surprisingly balanced account of Khodorkovsky and the charges against him. For the most part, the official case against Khodorkovsky is largely presented through stock footage of Vladimir Putin. As Tuschi frames these statements around many assertions that the arrest was fabricated by Putin, the result is a rather one sided depiction. It is likely that Tuschi could not get anyone to talk, but the lack of voices that are not at least partly supportive of Khodorkovsky does not result in a sufficiently balanced account.

The few dramatised scenes are animated using some very stylised CGI. It is a startling shift in visual tone against an otherwise traditional documentary style. A recurring animated image of Khodorkovsky swimming gleefully in a pool of gold and oil seems rather inappropriate considering how often his self imposed modest lifestyle is mentioned. Uncertain as to how it wants to present itself, the film dips in and out of different styles. Mostly driven by Tuschi’s narration, the director appears on screen infrequently, and unnecessarily, as if a Nick Broomfield type presentation was abandoned during production. One particular scene frustrated me, where Tuschi films himself in a paranoid state, worried that he might be poisoned or assassinated for filming his documentary. The notion is quickly dismissed as silly by Tuschi himself, yet it reeks of self importance and artificial tension that only serves to cheapen the film.

The visual presentation of the film is mostly disappointing, apart from a beautiful opening slow pan of the Yukos oilfields. The film is projected in ultra wide CinemaScope, quite odd for a documentary, and the film suffers as a result. The interviews do not seem to have been composed for this format, and many of the images are clearly cropped and zoomed, resulting in large drops in image quality. Instead of camera movements, we get abrupt digital zooms created in the editing room, and very often, basic principles of framing are simply ignored.

Towards the end of the film, a hitchhiking student says that out of all the Russian oligarchs, Khodorkovsky was ‘the best of the worst.’ I wondered if Tuschi had gotten too attached to the enigmatic idea of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and was unwilling to fully explore the extent of Khorokovsky’s own corruption, rather than of the political elite that imprisoned him in Siberia. We get glimpses of it, but it is not developed. Thankfully, there is no need for an audience to bring any knowledge of Russian politics to the film, but for better or worse, we will have to do our own research in order to arrive at a balanced conclusion, as there is simply not enough information in this film alone. Perhaps Khodorkovsky‘s greatest achievement lies in its potential to generate enough interest in order to provoke its audience to seek a more fulfilling conclusion elsewhere.

Kieran O Leary

Rated 12A (see IFCO website for details)
Khodorkovsky is released on 2nd March 2012

Khodorkovsky – Official Website



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