The collapse of the Soviet Union led to a volatile but highly advantageous environment for young Russian businessmen eager to build the fledgling market economy by any means necessary. Striking extraordinary deals with the government to acquire newly privatized industries, a small group of men became phenomenally rich almost overnight. The most successful of these oligarchs was Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who quickly became the wealthiest man in Russia. But Khodorkovsky was invested not only in business, but also in true social reform and a new ideal of an open society, an attitude that ran afoul of the absolute rule of Vladimir Putin. Within months of announcing a deal which would have opened the formerly state-controlled Russian oil industry to investment by Western corporations, Khodorkovsky and his business partners were arrested and jailed for fraud and tax evasion. [Synopsis courtesy of LAFF].
(USA, 2010, 88 mins, HDCam — Frame Rate 29.97)
In English and Russian with English subtitles
Directed By: Cathryn Collins
Executive Producers: Cathryn Collins, Pilar Crespi
Producer: Cathryn Collins
Cinematographers: David Scott, Richard Numeroff, John Kluver, Alexander Dzhaparidze, Victor Anatolevich
Editor: Shannon Kennedy
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[EDITOR’S NOTE: indieWIRE is profiling the Narrative and Documentary Competition filmmakers who are screening their films at the Los Angeles Film Festival as world premieres.]
Collins on how she became a filmmaker…
From the time I was a child I was carted around the world by my parents and in odd ways treated by them more or less like an adult. By this I mean that it was demanded of me that I would seek the information I needed to answer questions on my own and would only be given “assistance” if I were completely stuck. Further, it was expected of my brother and I that if we expressed an opinion about a subject that we had to provide an explanation. A premium was placed on rolling with whatever one encountered and we were richly exposed to the cultural world…it was a provocative, seductive but in many ways rigorous way to grow up.
My formal education is equally contradictory. I studied psychology and fine arts at Harvard and ultimately marketing and strategic planning. For 22 years I have had a luxury goods design business producing furniture, textiles, clothing and myriad other things in Italy and South Asia. The business and numerous philanthropic and other projects that I have been involved in simultaneously share the common elements of imagining idealized things that do not exist …products, projects, organizations and then finding the right people, places and methods through whom and by which to realize them. The process has always been the same. I “see” clearly how the end result looks and it is simply (actually not so simply) a matter of realizing that end.
I had been thinking about making a documentary film for over a decade before I finally set to work on VLAST (POWER) at age 45 but until that moment couldn’t see clearly enough that desired end result. I was vacillating between three story ideas for many of those years and finally took the plunge with the Khodorkovsky story. It was really a case of not being willing to face the self imposed recriminations if I didn’t try to make it. I could not find for myself in the available Western media the answers to the questions I had about Khodorkovsky, the chaotic unraveling of the Soviet Union and the continuing reconsolidation of state control in Russia. Once Khodorkovsky was convicted in 2005 I just felt that it was then or never. I really took the leap because I wanted answers first hand and I felt the story might run away from me if he died in prison or others finally set about telling it…but in fact he remains alive, others have not told the story and his significance in the ongoing Russian story remains paramount.
On what prompted the idea for the film…
I have a few drops of Russian blood but not enough to have provoked a lifelong interest in Russia. I studied Russian in high school and perhaps because of that early immersion I paid close attention to the dismantling of the Soviet Union. I remember just devouring every story about the chaos unfolding and the bubbling atmosphere of unbridled, bordering on ferocious, capitalism that suddenly broke through the stolid Soviet gloom. Khodorkovsky emerged as one of the most unexpected, at least to my mind, of that first group of post Soviet “businessmen.” I remember reading EVERYTHING about those first oligarchs and their gloves off creation of cash driven businesses and their eventual muscular participation and profiteering in the privatization of the Russian economy. What I specifically remember about Khodorkovsky and his mates when they acquired inefficient, cash strapped, oil businesses at a time when the price of oil was in the sewer, is thinking that he clearly understood what no one else seemed to: that it is all about energy…but this was the mid ’90’s. In 2000, his accelerating economic, social and political ascent coincided with the anointing of Vladimir Putin as President by the imploding Boris Yeltsin and it just seemed that given Putin’s KGB credentials and attachments therefore to the old order, it was inevitable that an explosive showdown between the new administration and the freewheeling oligarchs, particularly Khodorkovsky, would occur. It was at that moment in early 2000 that I shifted from being just more than extraordinarily interested to trying to figure out how to begin to tell the story of what had happened, was happening and would happen in Russia through the prism of Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s life. It just took me a while to get going!
On her approach to making the film…
In 2006 when I finally decided to try to start making the film I culled through that information that I had amassed over the previous 10 years and found the phone number of one of Khodorkovsky’s lawyers who had had a pretty serious run in with the Russian authorities resulting in his being deported. The significance of that fact is that I needed my first point of contact to be with someone who I knew, with certainty, would not tip my hand and let the Russian authorities know what I was attempting. Secondly, as I had zero experience as a filmmaker, as a journalist, a Russia expert or any other relevant bona fides, I calculated that I needed someone who DID have credibility to make the phone call for me so that I didn’t face a dial tone before I had even explained myself. The short version is that we scored on that first call…the lawyer happened to answer his own phone, happened to take the clever journalist friend I enlisted to make the call seriously and agreed to meet with me eventually in New York. What I didn’t know was that he would bring Khodorkovsky’s spokesperson with him to vet me and that she would become the key to the kingdom.
I knew the questions for which I wanted answers and I had a clear idea of the bigger picture of the opening and closing of Russia that would be the backdrop of the film but I did not have a plan for tackling the two elephants in the room: how do you make a compelling film about a dynamic, charismatic, articulate living man in his early ’40’s when you cannot interview or film him and how do you get anyone related to the story to speak to you in an environment in which everyone is literally mortally afraid? The answer is that you follow your sincere, humble instincts and do not lie to people who are used to a culture of obfuscation and unspoken agendas.
On what her biggest challenges were in developing the project…
In a country where the free press barely has a heartbeat and where Khodorkovsky is state enemy number one (a rating shared possibly by Boris Berezovsky) the hurdles of getting people to speak to me and actually getting people to work for me as crew (and locating usable equipment) were Everest like. The numerous people who requested to be listed in the credits anonymously give some indication as to that atmosphere. But the now amusing irony is that what actually proved most difficult once I had repeatedly tackled those issues and had amazing footage, time and again, was getting the media out of Russia. It would be indiscrete to elaborate but suffice it to state that John Le Carre could use most of what occurred in his darkest of novels.
On what she thinks the LAFF audiences will take from the film…
At the end of the day VLAST is about what motivates people to do genuinely extraordinary things, the most elevated, noble and intelligent things and the most foolish, self destructive and inexplicable things. Simultaneously it is a cautionary tale about the ways in which power, the power of ideas and morality, economic power and political power can be used and manipulated both to elevate and to destroy individuals and societies. VLAST demands, a bit like my father did of me, that the audience think for themselves, that they use their judgment and intelligence to project themselves into the lives of the people around Khodorkovsky and Putin and imagine how they would face the opportunities, crises and choices that inhabit the story.
On films that she considers inspirational to the film…
Z ,The Lives of Others and The Fog of War. What these films share is grittiness and directness while at the same time being restrained. They let the audience observe and judge. Of course the director’s hand and point of view are pillars but there is a conscious attempt not to protect the audience from information that may conflict with the director’s sympathies. And of course even though these are wildly different films they are all about political/social/ideological conflicts and about moments of societal convulsion. I specifically loved the palette and economy of The Lives of Others, in addition to everything else about it. The film so precisely captures the dim light and faded but somehow rich hues that I associate with Russia and Soviet and Soviet satellite settings and I tried to capture this to the extent possible because it is so representative of the DNA that underlies the story of VLAST.
I like that each of these films is as ambiguous in its presentation of individual character as people’s characters actually ARE in real life. Z, which I saw as a kid when it first came out in the US, nearly stopped my heart…I remember being devastated by how cynical and brutal politics could be, or just are, and being riveted by the idea of a film being able to intellectually/emotionally slap you across the face to wake you up to reality. The Fog of War was so humbling…judging events and people in real time is of course necessary but the impact of time, reflection and unforeseen outcomes which can only emerge with the passage of time changes each of us and watching McNamara come to terms with himself publicly in this film is one of the most devastating reminders of the hazards of being certain in the moment that I have ever experienced. The need to examine certainty and hubris and the horrible and beautiful surprises that come with reflection over time definitely influenced my story telling.
On her future projects in the pipeline…
There are several projects, all of which relate to fundamentalist Islam that I am developing. At this point it is a bit of a horse race to decide which one I will pull the trigger on. One of them, and the broad topic in general, really precedes my pursuit of the Khodorkovsky story and it was serendipitous that I ended up making the Khodorkovsky film first. I have been studying Islam since college in the ’70’s and have been mystified as to why it is that the non-Islamic world until so recently, 2001, knew so little about the world’s most popular religion. Like VLAST the idea is to have an intimate and raw exposure firsthand to something most non Muslims think we “understand” but in fact about which we know nothing, or at best very little and exclusively from non Muslims. One of the revelations about VLAST was that Russians are perhaps the most eager audience for the film because they are so deprived of more or less objective presentations of information about their own society…I have a feeling the same might be true of the next project vis-a-vis Muslims assuming I can get it made.