Wednesday 5 February 2020

On demand: "Citizen K"

The curious case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky - the former Russian oligarch who was once the world's richest man under 40, then (after a falling out with the New Russia's most prominent powerbrokers, Vladimir Putin among them) the world's richest political prisoner - has now been the subject of two feature-length documentaries, some indication of the importance this story holds to any working knowledge of the way the world currently turns. 2011's Khodorkovsky was a deft profile by the German filmmaker Cyril Tuschi, conceived in part to raise international awareness of this case as it progressed through the Russian legal system. We now have Citizen K, a typically thorough and impressive dispatch from Alex Gibney, which covers some of the same ground in even greater journalistic depth, while offering an update on where its subject is today, and further perspective on the extraordinary events of the past seven years. Introducing the story's key players (Khodorkovsky, Putin, Boris Yeltsin et al.) as if they were characters in a Guy Ritchie movie, Gibney frames his take as a tale of crime and either just or unjust punishment: a dividing-up of Soviet spoils that went awry, indirectly proving the old saw about honour among thieves. What makes Citizen K the most insightful film yet made on the New Russia is its ability to show how this falling-out has had wider reaching implications than, say, some Carling-fuelled coming to blows in the backroom of an East End boozer. An idea of democracy is at stake here; and when the music stops and the last of the dirty money stops sloshing around, these old lags may well be the men who decide the fate of Western civilisation.

The great irony of Gibney's film is that Khodorkovsky is not some high-minded, knightly figure who's ridden in to rescue us from Putinism, rather someone who has in his time been both a fatcat and a shark. Gibney diligently unearths a clip of the younger Khodorkovsky answering a TV interviewer's question "Are you greedy?" with an appropriately voracious-sounding "yes"; he admits on camera to propping up the Yeltsin regime so as to protect his own considerable assets; and in Gibney's account of his early business dealings, there is plentiful evidence of questionable if not entirely cutthroat behaviour. The suggestion is that Putin both admires and fears Khodorkovsky because he knows a steely will when he sees one; they're two sides of the same rouble, men with similar characteristics, turned to very different ends. Something about this story speaks to a widespread feeling - you wouldn't have to drink Stolichnaya to share it - that all the modern world's illusion of choice conceals is but a pick between varyingly compromised options: Khodorkovsky is relatively sympathetic, the best of an oily bunch, but that's about it. For Gibney - the pragmatist who replaced the idealist Michael Moore as America's most prominent documentarist - this makes him a fascinating study. The difference between the two docs is that with Khodorkovsky having passed through the penal system (Citizen K finds him exiled in London), Gibney is less inclined to paint him as a victim, instead framing him as an active player in an ongoing game, someone who's known wins and losses, ups and downs. The filmmaker is at least even-handed enough to note that prison has changed Khodorkovsky in some way - if not to renounce his remaining wealth (channelled into his anti-Putin lobby group Open Russia), then to focus more on being than having - and that the oligarch was hounded and prosecuted for dealings many of Putin's closest allies were also involved in. The questions Gibney quickly raises are these: why did Putin go so specifically after Khodorkovsky? What did he, of all people, know?

No question about the rigour with which Gibney describes those ups and downs, and pursues answers to those self-same questions. Citizen K represents one of the filmmaker's more forcefully anchored documentaries: he puts himself on screen briefly, and fills in whatever gaps his interviewees leave via his own very sober narration, a running counterpoint to the wild opinionating going on elsewhere in the broadcast media. It is a complicated story, taking in several decades' worth of plotting and powergrabs, and one that requires both knitting together - tying Putin's rise to Khodorkovsky's drift into dissidence and exile - and pulling out of the Siberian wastes to show how this internal power struggle relates to the rest of Europe. The director effortlessly manages that, scattering testimony from experts who actually have something urgent to say across segments that resonate both within the context of this story and the wider political climate. Watching a sequence on the extent of Putin's obsession with image control, you realise why British Conservatives - themselves trailing currently underexplained ties to Russia - are presently exerting such a stranglehold on the BBC; Putin's use of anti-oligarch rhetoric to court disenfranchised voters similarly strikes a very loud and very deep chord. Swap in a few "liberal elites" or "unelected bureaucrats", and it's enough to make you wonder who's really been running the UK over the past few years - even before Gibney unscrolls a litany of all those mysterious deaths of Putin critics that have happened of late in and around the Greater London area. Gibney's films continue to serve as educations on multiple fronts, often matching their targets for storytelling guile and strategic cunning; Citizen K insinuates that for enlightened citizens to defeat tyranny, they'll need to understand what tyranny does well and turn that on the tyrants themselves, to couple pro-democracy policies with the rhetorical force of their opponents. One of these days, someone's going to attempt such a judo throw on Putin. Could it be Khodorkovsky? Gibney is seasoned enough to addend a second question: if so, what next?

Citizen K is now streaming via Curzon Home Cinema.

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