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Tribeca ’10 | An Insider’s Look at the Russian Mafia in Alexander Gentelev’s “Thieves By Law”

Tribeca '10 | An Insider's Look at the Russian Mafia in Alexander Gentelev's "Thieves By Law"

The Russian Mafia: what can’t they do? After this insider’s look into the world of, ahem, “hypothetical” crimes, it’s pretty clear that the answer is nyet. Following the stories of three mafiosi-cum-businessmen, Thieves By Law paints a fascinating tableau of men that would make Tony Soprano cringe. Most intriguing, though, are their personal histories interwoven with the evolution of the Russian Mafia itself. Beginning in Stalin’s gulags and slowly transforming into an international organization, the mafia and Code of Thieves have always directly correlated to the political struggles of the Soviet Union—reflecting society back to the government like a funhouse mirror.

These men have been through bad times as well as good, persevering with the ammunition of street smarts, savvy, and loyalty to their code, and eventually transforming themselves from cunning crooks to shrewd businessmen. Through unprecedented access and a knack for asking all the right questions, director Alexander Gentelev shows us exactly what happens when a dark underbelly is flipped on its back: It slaps on some sunscreen, orders a Molotov cocktail, and soaks up those French Riviera rays…. [Synopsis provided by the Tribeca Film Festival]

“Thieves By Law”
World Documentary Feature Competition
Director: Alexander Gentelev
Screenwriter: Alexander Gentelev
Producer: Simone Baumann, Sasha Klein
Editor: Alik Baskin
Director of Photography: Sergei Freedman
Executive Producer: Simone Baumann, Sasha Klein
Producer: Maya Zinshtein
90 minutes

Editor’s Note: This is one interview in a series profiling directors whose films are screening at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival.

Director Alexander Gentelev on his beginnings as a filmmaker and the origins of “Thieves By Law”…

I was born in Daghestan in the former Soviet Union. I studied at the Academy of Film and Theater in Saint Petersburg, and in 1992 I immigrated to Israel. I have been living there ever since.

When I originally began my studies, I planned to focus on theater. Film was much less appealing to me until I met my teacher, the noted documentary filmmaker Pavel Kogan. He fostered in me a newfound love for the documentary genre and encouraged me to pursue it.

When I first returned to Russia in 1996, the country I found was totally different from the one that I had left four years earlier. Only then did I first notice the rise of the oligarchs and the Russian Mafia, but I immediately realized that this was a world that I wanted to document for posterity. I devoted the next ten years to my film “The Rise and Fall of the Russian Oligarchs,” which was released in 2006. While making this film I was increasingly determined to investigate the fascinating world of the Russian Mafia too. 

In 1996, I attended the inauguration of President Boris Yeltsin. While filming the many VIPs, I noticed a well-known thief-by-law, whom I happened to know personally, and who was surprisingly evasive about his reasons for being there. His presence at such a momentous occasion surrounded by such high-ranking dignitaries made obvious that the Mafia had stepped out from the shadows and was already positioning itself at the summit of the Russian monolith. I also realized that their story must be the basis of my next film.

While making this film I watched lots of films about the Russian Mafia, but found that they had just about everything except for the Russian Mafia. There were experts, academics, and police officials, all of whom spoke “about” the Mafia. On the other hand,  I couldn’t find a single film that spoke from “within” the Mafia.

I wanted to film in the first person, using people who came from that very world, rather than outsiders describing that world. I needed to find insiders who were willing to speak. I believed it was important to have them tell their own stories, since my goal was not to judge them. I simply wanted to offer a glimpse into that unfathomable world—a world so isolated and inaccessible that only they could describe it adequately. In fact, during each and every shoot, the crew was riveted by the characters and their stories. This was the first indicator I had about the kind of interest there might be in this film. That’s when I knew that the film would have an impact on its audience.

And a taste of his future projects…

Right now I’m working on a film about arms dealers around the world. I’m also doing a film on war crimes.

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