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Putin’s Witnesses

Documentary about Putin's first year in power in 2000 was directed by his personal cinematographer, who now resents being an "accomplice" of the leader he now describes as an "autocrat" - from the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival


This is a documentary that blends personal and political filmmaking like no other. It all starts on December 31st 1999 as Boris Yeltsin announces his resignation on television and passes the baton to Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, who was meant to lead an interim government until presidential elections were held a few months later. The director films his wife in the toilet and and his daughter in the bathtub, perhaps suggesting that every person is intimately connected to the decisions leaders make.

Vitaly Mansky was Putin’s personal cinematographer, and the Russian leader gave him total freedom to do whatever he wanted with the footage, allowing him great artistic freedom. Vitaly had access to both political events and intimate moments of Putin’s life, such as swimming session or a meeting with an old school teacher. Perhaps Putin intended to use the material as a propaganda tool of his more down-to-earth and affable side, and to emphasise that he was open and transparent. Putin claimed that – for the very first time ever – there would be real press freedom in Russia (eliciting a loud laughter from the film audience)

Vitaly also had access to Boris Yeltsin’s home, and he captured the great affection and trust that the then 68-year-old ailing man – who gave up his post mostly due to health complications – had for the new Russian leader. Yeltsin believed that Putin was a very skilled politician who could lead Russia towards a bright and democratic future. Yeltsin died seven years later in the middle of Putin’s second term, likely disappointed with Putin’s authoritarian governing style.

Almost everyone in Putin’s inner circle portrayed in the film – which is filmed almost entirely between December 31st 1999 and December 31st 2000 – is now in opposition and they paid a high price for defecting, the film reveals. Boris Nemtsov was assassinated. Mikhail Khodorkovsky was jailed and now lives in exile. The only exception is Dmitry Medvedev, who is now prime minister in exchange for his unwavering support (he was also president between 2008 and 2012). NTV also fell victim to Putin’s autocratic governing style. The television channel was nationalised shortly after it criticised Putin’s handling of the Kursk submarine (which sank in August 2000, killing all 118 personnel on board).

The film also addresses a very peculiar and unexpected gesture carried out by Putin on December 25th, 2000. He changed the Russian anthem to include the melody of its Soviet predecessor, probably in an attempt to connect with those nostalgic of the USSR. Yeltsin wasn’t particularly pleased. He interpreted it as a move to reject his post-communist reforms. He felt betrayed.

The creepiest moment comes at the end of the documentary, when Putin declares exclusively for Vitaly Mansky’s camera that one day he intends to be a “normal man” who can go to the shop, and that he does not have any desire to cling to power for a long time. The then 48-year-old Russian leader delivers a masterclass in hypocrisy and cynicism.

Putin’s Witnesses raises pertinent questions about the role of the documentarist and the purpose of the footage collected, which acquires an entirely different dimension as time passes – particularly when the film in question is a political one. Vitaly Mansky sums it up: “This is the price I had to pay for naively assuming I was merely a witness”. He recognises that he too is responsible for empowering Putin, and the consequences have been devastating. He echoed Hitler’s secretary Traudl Junge, who famously said: “I was only happy that I had not personally been guilty of these things and that I had not been aware of the scale of these things. I could perhaps have tried to find out about things.

This is the testament that filmmaker is never a passive player. He’s very active player, indeed.

Putin’s Witnesses shows at the 22nd Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival taking place right now. DMovies is live at the event unearthing the dirty gems firsthand and exclusively for you!

By Victor Fraga - 22-11-2018

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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