Filmmaker Cyril Tuschi's gripping new documentary Khodorkovsky charts Mikhail Khodorkovsky's journey from living large as Russia's wealthiest man to finding himself in jail as a political prisoner after butting heads with Vladimir Putin. Boxoffice recently caught up with Tuschi to discuss this morally complex film.
Do you think Russian public opinion of Khodorkovsky would be different if he wasn't the wealthiest man in Russia at the time of his arrest?
Of course. Definitely. 100%. I was also a bit shocked when I went over there for the second time and started to do more research into how many people hated him, and said he's a capitalist who stole our money, etc. First of all, the Russians always had an anti-capitalist education, and secondly, in the 90s, they lost a lot of their security. There was also kind of some warmth in socialist countries, and kind of caring even if they didn't have anything. This was all gone in the 90s, and some people got immensely rich, and so it was really visible. And of course, Putin's propaganda machine everyday repeats that he's a thief, and a thief has to be in prison. So, I was not really surprised, but I also have to say that the opinion changes. When I started my research in 2006, almost 90% were against him, and now it's only 70% or 60% who are against him. Or they don't know him. It's either ignorance or they say he's a thief. But it changes. Every day he is in prison more supporters come.
So his being in prison longer is actually generating more support for him?
Do you know why that is, or what's changed?
Well, they see that not everything Putin said is coming true. And they see that he is staying firm, and they see that he's saying, like in the film also, he's saying the same things he was saying five years ago. And that's quite rare. Usually people are changing their minds often. And in Russia there's a tradition of prisons. Dostoyevsky was in prison. So, prison was also an instrument of cleansing you and creating a new aura. So, that's very Russian also.
What about human rights groups? Do you think they would be reacting differently if he didn't have so much wealth?
That's why I put it in the film. There was a different opinion—there still is a different opinion. Milan Horacek from the European Parliament said, well, it's the first time that I defended a rich man, but even rich men have human rights.
Right. But do you think that's a popular view?
Well, of course there were hesitations on the human rights side, and also, for example, Amnesty International, from the start they didn't support Lebedev and Khodorkovsky. It took some time. Now, only last year, for them, they are prisoners of conscience. But it didn't start that easily. So, of course, it definitely is a case where they think, hey you're rich. You're either a crook from the first point on or you have enough money to defend yourself. But that's also not right to do that as a human rights defender. You cannot say, "Okay. You have enough money. You can defend yourself."
Right. It's interesting because I think that is generally viewed as you support the underprivileged or the less privileged, but, it doesn't really matter. He's still a political prisoner.
Exactly. I'm not a journalist, and I'm not an investigative journalist, and I cannot find out what happened in the 90s. Of course, I was fearing all the time when I was researching, oh, what will you do when you find out that all the propaganda against Khodorkovsky is true. I told myself that when I find out that someone from his team did something really bad or killed someone that I will stop the film. Other professional journalists told me, "Why Cyril? Then it becomes interesting." Of course, I'm already too involved in the project, and I got to know his family that lives in New York, his son Pavel. I hope to see him at the premiere. So, it's really not that easy for me because I was doing fiction films before, and, often I was also waking up in the middle of the night and thinking these are not just characters, these are human beings. But even for characters you have to care.
And it makes it even more real when it's a real person, and you see the effects. It was interesting to see too, how many others were affected by his arrest.
Definitely. My theory is because he was too proud to give in, to bow, they just punished all the people in the second row also, to punish him. There are so many people who are on the Interpol search list, so many people still in prison. If he gets out he'll have to work a lot to get all the other people out and take care of his family that he neglected for so long. Even without any normal business accusations he has a lot of weight and responsibility on his shoulders to work it out again after he might get out. Of course the question of morals and guilt came up, and I thought to myself well, what would you have done? How could you solve this? I was trying to put myself in the same position. But I'm not a judge, I cannot be a judge, but still, I had the responsibility due to editing because with editing you can turn the tone of what you show the audience very easily and you can make a film where he's only a hero for 100 minutes, or you can make a film where he's just the baddest villain in town. It's really a tough responsibility I really only learned while doing.
You didn't really seem to project your views on it, I thought did you a good job of just showing the story and just showing who he was. He wasn't this perfect person, and yet here he is, making a stand, and being punished.
Exactly. And that was the most work, that was one and a half years of work to balance it, but of course I have a position. I have a moral position now, and also I hope that it's visible in the film, even though I didn't make it too clear for everybody in the first sense, but if I had made it clear it would have just been badly made propaganda. Aside from getting people to talk, that was the most work was finding some balance.
You do a number of interviews and we hear a lot of different theories as to why he didn't flee the country. He knew about his impending arrest and he chose to stay. Which theory do you think is the most valid?
Why he chose to stay? Well, of course the first question for me was the curiosity for the big drama because at first I wanted to make a feature film about it, about a great Greek drama of two titans or of two egos, but then the second was why he came back to Russia from New York. And he said it himself in the letter, he said, "because if I would have stayed in exile it would have been an admittance of guilt and I couldn't let my business partner Platon Lebedev remain in prison as a hostage." I think that's true, but I also think—and he would never admit it because he's too proud—that he overestimated his power and underestimated Putin's power and desire to lock him up forever. Maybe he also thought that he would be in prison for three or four weeks. Or he hoped that America would help him more than they did. He really hoped that Bush would do something really harsh against Russia after he was arrested.
And that didn't happen.
It definitely didn't happen. The whole business community, the American, the international community—it really didn't happen. But one thing I didn't put in the film was the business advisor, the early one from Geneva, Christian Michel, said, "there is very rarely solidarity between Proletarian workers. But there is never solidarity between Capitalists. Never. Of course, you can make some deals, but solidarity? Never." And I think, sadly enough, that is true. So, to hope that his Russian business partner would help him just didn't happen.
Do you think that Khodorkovsky's wealth and status gives his protest more power compared to a large movement of average citizens who might similarly protest?
It depends on what you want to achieve. Of course now he wants to get out and his family wants him to get out. Besides that, Pavel Khodorkovsky—we had him via Skype at a press conference in Moscow—and all the reactions in Moscow were really touching. And Pavel said its both ways. If his father is released, it will be a call for freedom and development of Democracy in Russia. And if Russia develops as a more democratic civil society, then his father will be freed. So it's both ways. His being locked up or becoming free is a very strong symbol for the development of Russia. Many people think this, but there's very little opposition yet. And that's why they talk about it a lot. So he's a strong symbol. The business community says, although I don't think it's true, that he's a litmus test for whether there can be safe business in Russia or not.
At this point there's no saying when he's going to be released. Do you have any ideas of when he might be released, or the aftermath of his being released?
Good question. Actually not—but I think that what [Leonid] Nevzlin says is true, because as long as Putin is in power, he will not get out. He has another six years, and when they pass he will just invent another trial. So it's very basic. The person who is in power is dictating the law.
It's hard to say.
It's hard to say. But today I arrived from St. Petersburg, where we had a screening, and we had a screening the day before in Moscow, and I'll go back to Moscow right after this, but for some reason, the atmosphere changes. Everything was dominated by fear, but something is happening. The people are losing their fear, to speak, to criticize, to talk, to meet. That's really a tremendous new wave of fresh air I've experienced in the last 48 hours. This kind of courage is really contagious. When they see someone speaking openly, they dare to speak more openly. There's a tradition of losing hope really fast, which really depressed me. In Germany, in general, when you're young you stand up against your father or authority. Even if you might criticize Occupy Wall Street, the people are just going out and doing something. This didn't happen in Russia at all. Because there's a little more wealth left since Yeltsin went. So, people say okay, that's better than before. Putin is good because he's giving us stability. Many people just exchange stability for freedom. Which sounds strange, but it's true.
It is true. That was what was happening here in America until recently.
That's what I think part of Occupy Wall Street is about.
Yeah. I think since we're in a very international world and connected through Internet everything is visible. All the cynical people say nothing happens through Occupy Wall Street, but they're just cynical. And of course people laugh about it, because they still make the backroom deals. I think it's important to be able to do it and feel not alone. And of course, nothing is changed in a day or a week. It is naïve to hope for revolutions in a week. I'm curious to see what will happen. In Russia I'm really happy that those discussions have started.
Yeah, that's very positive.
Warner Brothers is trying to put together a film on [Alexander] Litvinenko (A poisoned Russian spy whose story overlaps with Khodorkovsky's). If it continues to move forward do you think it's plausible—and you had mentioned your interest in creating fictional films, too—do you think that they might create a fictional film for Khodorkovsky?
The answer is easy and difficult. I started the film as a fiction idea, I even made an expose, but I moved into a documentary because all my fantasy was not as strong as reality. Regarding the Litvinenko film, I know the script, I have the script, but they've developed since I made the Khodorkovsky film, so I'm not sure how far along they are. I've gotten some calls from Hollywood regarding making a fiction film, but I think it will be less complex than the documentary so I'm hesitating. What I'm imagining could work would be something like The Sopranos, a 40-part series, that could start with Khodorkovsky as a child. And this would be interesting for me as a foreigner, but you have a much closer look, and 90 minutes just doesn't work. You saw the film, and the film works at its length for the big screen, but I really had to condense the information.