Sundance Film Review: ‘The Notorious Mr. Bout’

The Notorious Mr Bout Sundance

A somewhat grotesquely comic, very entertaining portrait of a man known to many as 'the Merchant of Death.'

Some of the nicest people supply arms to tyrants and terrorists these days — or such is one conclusion one could draw from “The Notorious Mr. Bout” and its subject. He’s a Russian “entrepreneur” who by all evidence here is industrious, fun, loyal, clever, genial — and known to many as “the Merchant of Death,” a nickname first given him by an appalled United Nations official. Tony Gerber and Maxim Pozdorovkin’s very entertaining documentary paints a somewhat grotesquely comic, in its way even sympathetic, portrait of a man whose guilt in enabling war crimes is crystal-clear to everyone save himself. Sales should be hale, especially to broadcasters.

Viktor Bout currently languishes in a New York federal prison, serving a minimum sentence of 25 years on several convictions. He views this as a gross injustice — after all, he was entrapped. Never mind that we see him on surveillance tape happily agreeing to sell military-grade weaponry to DEA agents posing as Colombian guerillas for the express purpose of killing Americans. Or that he has a long history of similar dealmaking, particularly with conflict zones in Africa. As far as he, devoted wife Alla and several long-term employees are concerned, he simply transports goods. What they are, what is done with them and by who is not his concern, even though his own archival video footage underlines that he has indeed been largely aware of such things over the years.

For Bout, who with considerable pluck entered import/export trade right after the fall of communism — riding high on Russia’s new Wild West capitalism — is (or at least was) a home-videotaping junkie, having first purchased a camera when he started making some dough. Thus we see him traveling the world over two decades’ span, always the life of the party, oblivious to the fact that most folks in his position might actively avoid making a permanent record of their partying with shady weapons manufacturers and shadier international despots, or playing tourist a few hundred yards from a brutal civil war. He’s not an idiot, and doesn’t seem sociopathic; allies say he’s simply naive. The only certain thing is that he has an extraordinary capacity for moral blindness.

Hence, while admittedly also dealing in less objectionable consumer items (from produce to home electronics), Bout and a shifting cast of partners enjoyed dubiously legal trading of old Soviet cargo planes, Bulgarian-manufactured arms, et al., to and from such places as the United Arab Emirates, the Congo, Angola, Liberia, Afghanistan, South Africa and so forth — nations where human rights have a troubled past, and in some cases an abysmal present and future.

Late in the film, there’s a moment when one observer among the various journalists, diplomats and watchdogs interviewed here muses that Bout grew up in a culture of institutionalized corruption, and having come of age during the “big bang of globalization,” his subsequent success has done nothing to revise an inculcated belief that making money is never a “clean” business. Is he a convenient scapegoat to punish so governments can continue to downplay their own roles in global arms trade, oppression and murder? Perhaps. But then again, how much suffering and evil would be avoided if intermediaries like him simply declined to profit, however indirectly, from bloodshed?

The lively mix of talking heads, public footage and ample private footage (clearly the Bouts thought being seen “as they really are” would be exonerating) is further brightened by clever graphics and an inspired score. Latter’s oom-pah-pah lounge music personifies and mocks the slightly vulgar jet-set lifestyle its protagonists lived until recently.

Sundance Film Review: 'The Notorious Mr. Bout'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema — competing), Jan. 18, 2014. Running time: 94 MIN.

Production

(Documentary — U.S.-Russia) A Market Road Films presentation of a Third Party production in association with BBC Storyville. (International sales: Cinetic Media, New York.) Produced by Tony Gerber, Maxim Pozdorovkin. Executive producers, Nick Fraser, Lynn Nottage, Kate Townsend. Co-producers, Innbo Shim, Pax Wassermann.

Crew

Directed by Tony Gerber, Maxim Pozdorovkin. Camera (color, HD), Gerber; editors, Arseni Troitski, Pax Wasserman; music, Fall on Your Sword, Will Bates; supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer, Ryan M. Price; graphics, Stephanie Gould, Richard Nehmad; animation, Caitlin Craggs, Angela Stempel.

With

Viktor Bout, Alla Bout, Sergei Bout, Albert Dayan, Slava Grichine, Timur Edikhanov, Matt Potter, Dirk Draulans, Brian Johnson Thomas, Robert Zachariasiewicz, Wim Brown, Louis Milione, Andreas Morgner. Voice: Gennadi Vengerov. (English, Russian dialogue)

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  1. Sergio Finardi says:

    From 2000 to date, no one has ever proven in a Court that the two accusations waged against Mr. Bout by the UN panels and related to thee flights to Liberia and an unknown number of flights to Angola in UNITA-held territories are true. The reports do not have supporting evidence attached and no one other than some of those panelists has ever seen it, if it really exists. The UN refuse access to their archive. And those accusations were the only ones directed to Mr. Bout, despite more than 20 UN reports that mention Mr. Bout and repeat blindly the same stories.

    As far as the book Merchant of Death is concerned, Mr. Baum and Mr. Farah have made up so many events and “biographies” (such as for example Mr. Peleman’s and Ms. Austin’s) and made some many “mistakes” on the Taliban and FARC (1999) stories that it would be necessary another book to publish the evidence of their inventions. Not to mention Mr. Draulans and his ridiculous photograph of Mr. Bout in front of an aircraft what was not one of Bout’s aircraft, with troops that had nothing to do with him, plus other “mistakes” about planes belonging to Bemba. etc.

    The movie was supposed to contribute to redress the absurdities that 14 years of journalists too lazy to check the facts have created. Unfortunately, it is just a boring journey within irrelevant family footage and the “actress” Alla, with some equally irrelevant and mildly criticism of the mainstream narrative on Mr. Bout, on the basic ground that he was really what Mr. Farah & C. wanted people to believe and journalists have repeated ad nauseam, knowing that Uncle Sam is always generous with the ones who repeat his narrative of the world events.

    As far as your last comment is concerned (“Is he a convenient scapegoat to punish so governments can continue to downplay their own roles in global arms trade, oppression and murder? Perhaps. But then again, how much suffering and evil would be avoided if intermediaries like him simply declined to profit, however indirectly, from bloodshed?”) I am asking you:

    – what do you know about the weight of weapons been shipped to 42 governments in Africa by China, France, Russia, UK, and the US (and their allies) between 1991 and 2001 and the weight of weapons shipped in the same period by people like the ones you imagine “independent” “intermediaries”. Try to know about those two total weights, try to know how much of them went to feed, soon or later, 39 different wars and then try to re-read your answer…if you can.

  2. Viktor Bout is currently serving his sentence in Marion, IL., [NOT in New York] in a specialized high security unit called communication monitored unit or CMU. Shortly after the conclusion of Viktor Bout’s trial in November 2011, he was moved from the Federal prison in Manhattan to the Federal prison in Brooklyn. I should know I visited him twice in Brooklyn before he was transferred to Marion, IL. in June of 2012 where he has been since.
    George Mapp

    • Robert Lent says:

      @SergioFernad. Your weight question is irrelevant. Is there any question that Bout knew he was profiting from the sale of weapons for a living? Whatever entrapment may have occurred in the concocted Columbian scheme, Bout was prepared to keep himself fat and healthy at the expense of U.S. soldiers. Of course, the film hardly touched on the hilarious hypocrisy of a man whose entire career was the result of Russian reform and the embrace of capitalism, selling arms to socialist guerrillas because he believed in the cause. All the weapons shipped to Africa by numerous countries, including the U.S., doesn’t change those facts. I’m all for exposing the hypocrisy of super powers and their puppets but the filmmakers posed this premise: 1. Was Bout the Merchant of Death, the genius entrepreneur or 2. A naive dunce? As hard as the filmmakers tried to portray the latter, there shouldn’t be any doubt that he is much closer to the former. Being a soulless creep without a conscience is actually much worse than being a mere fool.

      • Sergio Finardi says:

        The question about weight is not big powers in comparison with Bout, the comparison is between powers and intermediaries. You put Mr. Bout among the people you define intermediaries. The real question is: where is the evidence? Why are you so sure that Bout fit your idea of an intermediary? Did you see the evidence? I am studying the issue since more than 10 years and I did not. Simply. If the international community was so sure he was culprit of the crimes he was accused of, why not indict him for them? International tribunals, as for many other people. But well no, no one attempted to try Bout for those supposed crimes. Why? As you know, the sting operation was meant to obtain later an extradition order and the order allows for a trial on that supposed crime only, thus burying for ever the possibility to prove in a Court if the previous accusations – the one you believe in for no other reasons they were repeated by all the media for years – were true or not.
        So, it is does not matter if Bout is culprit or not, what matters – in a civilized world – is that no one (not even the thousands of US politicians and generals who contributed to transform Africa in a killing field and ” keep themselves fat and healthy) deserve to be condemned without trial.
        Or I hope that you will be one day in prison for crimes no trail or tribunal has ever ascertained.

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