Proving it pays to stick with a docu subject for the long haul, “Putin’s Kiss” tracks four years in the life of a firebrand member of Russia’s ultranationalist Nashi movement who eventually has a Damascene conversion of sorts. Danish helmer Lise Birk Pedersen’s debut feature has structural flaws, and auds might wonder how much the presence of her crew affected some of the events recorded, but the pic still tells a riveting story about contempo Russia’s darkest side. Since its IDFA premiere, the docu has been kissed with Sundance selection, and should travel far, especially in the wake of growing social unrest after Russia’s recent election.
Born in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell, Masha Drokova was drawn as a teenager to Nashi, a cult-of-personality youth movement started by Vasily Yakemenko in 2005 that pledges unswerving support for President Vladimir Putin and all his policies. Although nominally “anti-fascist” and pledged to organizing nonviolent protest marches and the like, the organization not so covertly promulgates racist views and encourages its members (estimated to number around 120,000) to harass and attack “enemies of the state,” such as journalists who have criticized Putin’s regime or rival political parties. Members of Nashi have been linked to brutal attacks on such enemies.
Drokova achieved nationwide fame for being filmed kissing Putin at a rally, and quickly ascended the ranks of Nashi, becoming a spokesperson for what some have likened to the Hitler Youth movement. Photogenic and seemingly rational, she was willing to engage in TV debates with anti-Putinists, such as journalist Oleg Kashin, in order to defend her views and encourage more recruits.
But when she loses an internal election for Nashi’s leadership, Drokova begins to have doubts about her commitment to Nashi, and is cruelly belittled by Vasily Yakemenko (now promoted to Putin’s Minister of Youth) at a rally, a sequence helmer Pedersen was uncannily lucky to catch oncamera. Drokova starts to build tentative friendships with Nashi critics, although she insists on defending the organization. However, when Kashin is brutally beaten by “unknown perpetrators,” Masha starts to have a genuine change of heart.
Pic’s strongest suit is that its subjects are all such strong, vivid characters, particularly Drokova, who in the early going, recalls Reese Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick from “Election” with her prim schoolgirl outfits and ruthless ambition. But by the end, she becomes more admirable as she sticks to her principles no matter the cost. Still, some might have doubts about her sincerity, especially since scenes in which she has heart-to-heart talks with two of her sisters seem so obviously staged for the docu’s benefit. Indeed, there’s something a little too good to be true about the narrative’s neat trajectory.
“Kiss” could benefit by having some rough edges smoothed out, such as the clumsy way it foreshadows that something awful happened to Kashin, but then takes half an hour to reveal what it was. Otherwise, tech credits are OK, if a bit cheesy in a smallscreen sort of way. It will be interesting to see whether the pic is shown on Russian turf at all, especially since the recent docu “Khodorkovsky” (about someone Nashi would certainly describe as an “enemy of the state”) has been confined to just one cinema in Moscow.