Controversial docu fails to get 20-print release

MOSCOW — Russians go to the polls Sunday to elect a new government with victory for the Kremlin’s United Russia party all but guaranteed. That has not prevented media scandals surfacing this week as the country’s pro- and anti-Kremlin groups face off and the rumor mill goes into overdrive.

The failure of a controversial German-made docu about jailed Yukos oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky to gain distribution beyond one independent cinema in Moscow has been pumped up into a full-scale political scandal by some.

Others have scotched allegations that the film — said to have been initially scheduled for a 20-print release in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Novosibirsk (the city where the oligarch was arrested in 2003) — was refused exhibition for political reasons.

A major story that ran last week in respected business daily Kommersant claimed that “Khodorkovsky,” directed by Cyril Tuschi, had been pulled from 19 or 20 theaters at which it was slated to play. That left just one theater willing to show the film — Moscow’s Eldar, owned by veteran Soviet director Eldar Ryazanov, where the docu is the opening film Dec. 2 of leading Russian documentary filmmaker Vitaly Mansky’s festival Artdoc Fest. That is just two days before Russians vote in parliamentary elections that are being seen as a test of the strength of the Kremlin’s rule.

President Dmitry Medvedev — who will stand down to make way for Vladimir Putin to run for a third term as president in March — leads United Russia. Recent polls have shown a dip in support for the party, which has won landslide victories over the past decade.

Support for Putin — currently prime minister, a previous two-term president long regarded as the country’s de facto ruler — is also slipping. Two weeks ago he was booed at a sporting event and Medvedev was recently ridiculed for appearing in a promotional video playing tennis, badly, against Putin.

Khodorkovsky was the only oligarch who dared publicly to breach the Kremlin agreement that businessmen keep their noses out of politics, ushered in when Putin was anointed president in 2000. Khorkovsky’s opposition ended in his arrest and trial on charges of tax evasion. In 2005 he was imprisoned for eight years; a subsequent trial on charges of embezzlement and fraud extended his sentence. He is due for release in 2016.

That has fuelled speculation that the reason the cinemas slated to screen the film pulled out was due to political pressure.

Olga Papernaya, of KinoKlab, the film’s Russian distributor, said she had verbal agreements with 20 cinemas, including Moscow city hall-owned Khudozhestvenniy cinema. When the city-owned theater changed its mind, virtually all other cinemas followed suit.

But Mary Nazari, manager of Pioner Theater, a respected art-house venue, told Variety that the film had never been in the cinema’s schedule and no written contract had ever been signed. “We did not refuse the film; we never had any plans to show it,” she said.

The film — the Russian rights of which Kinoklab bought from French sales agent Rezo Film last July — did have an official Russian distribution license, granted in September.

Last February, a few days before the film’s premiere at the Berlinale, a master copy was stolen in a burglary at the director’s Berlin office.

Police have not found the perpetrators. The premiere went ahead as Tuschi had a copy on his laptop computer.

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