Is this really a good time for a documentary that sides with a jailed billionaire? Cyril Tuschi’s extraordinary “Khodorkovsky” is not even the first nonfiction film I’ve seen this season that sympathizes with the rich. But it is a very different sort of doc than “Unraveled,” which infuriatingly (yet still captivatingly) allows the corrupt American lawyer Marc Drier to tell his story and claim victimhood (read my review from DOC NYC). Tuschi’s film is about a once-wealthy protagonist, the former head of Russia's Yukos Oil Company, who seems more legitimately a victim, one who might even be able to win over a few Occupy protesters. Maybe.
The subject here, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was one of the richest men in the world, but now he sits in a Siberian prison, allegedly more for political reasons than the supposedly phony tax evasion and fraud offenses he was charged with. In the land of Vladimir Putin, accepting oligarchs as heroes is not that difficult. Still, this is not without much irony. One human rights worker in the doc says it’s his first case defending a capitalist. Another person acknowledges that oligarchs are not good people, “but he was the best of the worst.”
“Khodorkovsky” plays like a narrative political thriller, complete with intrigue, lies, poisoned supporting characters and minor plot twists. Having such a connection to a predominantly fictional genre is one of the many reasons I got an Alex Gibney vibe -- at least thinking of his earlier docs, when he purposefully aimed for a more fiction film feel. For more obvious comparison, this film comes off like Gibney’s classic “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” and the more recent “Casino Jack and the United States of Money.” Even the voiceover narration from actor Jean-Marc Barr is Gibney-ish.
Where Tuschi breaks away from the comparison is in authority. Gibney’s films always seem to be telling us a story rather than investigating it. “Khodorkovsky” has a curious, inquisitive nature, yet nothing here is as naïve as many first-person docs. Perhaps we could call it more an outsider approach than uninformed, as the director is a German filmmaker who stumbled upon the story while attending a film festival in Siberia. More than five years later, he’s made a doc, which is not his usual mode, and all that time probably helped in producing a film that’s pretty comprehensive in spite of its speculative tone.
I wonder if his seemingly ignorant perspective is what might have allowed him to continue without danger. That and his foreignness. We at least know that someone, presumably at the Kremlin, doesn’t want the film to be seen, because a print was stolen from Tuschi’s office during the Berlin International Film Festival, where it premiered regardless of the hitch. Maybe I’m just paranoid after this and the recently released Anna Politkovskaya doc “A Bitter Taste of Freedom” (which makes for a great double feature; read my review), but I’m worried enough giving “Khodorkovsky” a positive review. It’s such an excellently crafted doc and of course it’s as necessary as any film that someone wants censored, so I’ll take the risk.
Admittedly, I don’t understand every bit of international, economic, political and historical element of “Khodorkovsky,” but that only makes it all the more like a complex fictional thriller to me. And while there’s a lot going on and it can get rather convoluted, the general story is hard to lose track of. Tuschi keeps things interesting and entertaining with reenactment animation, some incredible assets -- particularly the letters written to the director by the imprisoned Khodorkovsky -- and occasional oddities, like the scene in which an interviewee is feeding what I suppose is his pet hippopotamus . On top of all this is a very well shot and edited film, which somewhat came out of nowhere, really pulled me in and now has me engrossed beyond the doc itself.
In the end we’re left with some questions, most of which probably won’t be answered or understood before Khodorkovsky is released, as late as 2017. That gives us a lot of time to discuss the story and the film. Still, see it immediately, as the conversation might just be that arresting.
"Khodorkovsky" opens Wednesday at Film Forum in NYC.
Recommended If You Like: "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room"; "A Bitter Taste of Freedom"; "Waltz With Bashir"