by director Alex Gibney
Sometimes you make films about things you know. Sometimes you make films about things you should know.
After the election of 2016, I felt I didn’t know nearly enough about Russia, particularly how power works there. So I set out to make a film. Or better yet, a movie.
Citizen K can’t be considered an authoritative film. I’m not an authority. But it is an investigative film. By this investigator. How did I investigate? I read everything I could get my hands on. I talked to as many people as I could. And I went to London and Russia. That’s it. That’s what you do. You go and look and listen and, in the wise words of Nick Fraser, “say what happened.”
The story would be guided by the tale of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, but I didn’t want him to be the only voice. So, in addition to MBK, I wanted to talk to people I call “two-fers”: people who knew Khodorkovsky but could also tell me something about this lost history of Russia in the ‘90s.
That period is just plain crazy. One film critic called it “Goodfellas with a gulag.” A time of gangster capitalism. Many others have said it was like the Wild West. In the cutting room, my editor Mikey Palmer and I joked that we were making a Slavic version of Sergio Leone, something like Once Upon a Time in the East.
That idea guided our approach to the music. Like Leone, we wanted it to be out front—a formal character that was framing, guiding and pushing the action. We pushed our composers (Ivor Guest and Robert Logan) away from tones into melody that would echo the Russian steppes, but would be pulpy, sentimental and, as sardonic as Gogol. Mikey dug deep into Russian classics and we supplemented the score with tunes from Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Stravinsky and many others. To open the film, we used, with useful irony, “Song for the Unification of Europe” by Zbigniew Preisner.
I made the decision to interview Khodorkovsky on the “tony-tron,” a small wooden box with two-way mirrors (designed by DP Tony Rossi) that fits over the lens so that Khodorkovsky could look at me while talking into the barrel of the camera. Everyone else was interviewed off-angle. We each had ear pieces with translators so that we could have a free-flowing conversation—four days before I went to Russia and four days after I returned.
The question everyone seems to want to ask is this: “do I believe MBK changed in prison?” I do believe in the idea that people can change and I think that MBK is one of those people. I wouldn’t say he had a conversion experience. But based on those who knew him before and after, based on his writings and our conversations, I would say that he learned something profound in his cell in Krasnokamensk, so far from Moscow and so close to Mongolia. How could he not when he went from being Russia’s richest man to someone who had no power except for the ability to take his own life in hunger strikes.
In my experience, wealthy and/or powerful people usually react with self-pity and imagine themselves as victims when confronted with adversity. Khodorkovsky did not fit that mold. In one of his writings from prison he talked, in unusual ways, about his fortune. “I did not control this wealth alone,” said Khodorkovsky. “It controlled me as well. I’m becoming a common person for whom what matters is ‘being’ not ‘having.’”
It’s hard to imagine other oligarchs—including America’s most famous oligarch, Donald Trump—writing something like that.
One last note. This is a film that embraces contradictions and ambiguities. There is no simple message intended. But there are intended reflections of our own situation in this portrait of Putin’s Russia. And even when it came to Putin himself, I discovered something I didn’t expect: even Russia’s most powerful man may be afraid that, someday, no one will answer his phone.