“This is the price I had to pay for naively assuming I was merely a witness,” says filmmaker Vitaly Mansky toward the close of “Putin’s Witnesses,” his riveting, incensed documentary chronicling the early stages of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s tyrannical rule. Years after spending considerable time filming Putin at close quarters, in his capacity as head of documentaries for Russian national television, Mansky has evidently spent much time pondering his degree of complicity in the president’s toxic power — making “Putin’s Witnesses” not just a major, access-rich overview of recent history, but a compelling work of personal self-reckoning, one that should resonate with a broad swath of audiences at a time of international political questioning and activism.
One audience that probably won’t get to see the film, of course, is the one that needs it most. It’s hard to imagine “Putin’s Witnesses” seeing the light of day in Russia, where state suppression of news and media is at crisis point. Today, the idea of a filmmaker like Mansky, now living in self-imposed exile in Latvia, being given the degree of first-hand Kremlin access that he enjoyed at the outset of this century — and from which this film has belatedly been made possible — seems positively bizarre. Around the world, however, festival programmers and documentary distributors are sure to pounce on this hotly topical one-off following its Karlovy Vary premiere, sealing Mansky’s reputation as a docmaker of intrepid ambition and daring: It pairs up remarkably with 2015’s “Under the Sun,” the director’s fascinating Trojan-horse subversion of a North Korean propaganda script.
Unlike that film, no subterfuge on Mansky’s part is required this time. It’s built entirely from his own wealth of archive material, much of it self-shot, from the years 1999-2000, when he was simultaneously making multiple films about Russia’s political transition period, including profiles of Putin, Mikhail Gorbachev and then-president Boris Yeltsin, whose resignation announcement on the auspicious date of December 31, 1999 kicks off the narrative of Mansky’s film on a doom-laden note. Home-video footage from the director’s own household is woven into the mix at this point, as Mansky’s wife (and producer) Natalya despairingly states, “Our utopia is gone all of a sudden — the world is shaken, it’ll be afraid of us now.”
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“Utopia” might be an exaggerated term for the rocky new beginning of Yeltsin’s post-Soviet presidency, but the prescience of her words is striking all the same. Mansky is slightly more temperate in his response, as the unexpectedly sudden advent of Putin’s acting presidency brings the filmmaker a commission to make a kind of PR profile of the dour new leader, who was already cannily controlling his public image by refusing to do TV debates or advertising in the run-up to the official election. His self-exclusion from such competitive business, Mansky sharply notes, was a “trick” to “emphasize his chosen-ness.”
So it was that Mansky, however skeptically, wound up playing a role in Putin’s anti-campaign, engineering and filming such camera-friendly strategic setpieces as a reunion with a devoted teacher — a would-be emotional coup that falls amusingly flat in the face of Putin’s sheer gray-faced implacability. “My team documented him in his unremitting toil for the benefit of the people,” Mansky says, with hindsight-enhanced sarcasm as thick and sour as borscht. The director’s voiceover runs throughout, and is heavy on such emotive editorializing: It’s not subtle, but “Putin’s Witnesses” rather makes the case that the present moment is no time for restraint in protesting fascism. The film resorts to no other journalists, commentators or talking heads besides the directed political subjects captured on camera: This is strictly Mansky’s testament, asserting his presence and admitting possible error.
The tone of Mansky’s inquiry gets more caustically accusatory as the film unfolds, its intensity supported by Karlis Auzans’s sparse, shivery score. In a damning centerpiece, he reviews footage of Putin’s election campaign team, recapping their individual biographies, and drily noting the number of them who have since crossed to the political opposition, been demoted or exiled, or died in highly suspicious circumstances. (The latter group includes Mikhail Lesin, former minister of the press, whose murder in 2015 continues to be a point of fevered international media interest — suffice to say Mansky’s views on this incident do not align with those of the U.S. government.)
More implicitly, meanwhile, the film casts Yeltsin in the pile of Putin’s lost allies, fashioning him as a tragic moral figure in the process. A bullish supporter of his successor to begin with (“They saw he fits and voted for him,” he says when the 2000 election victory is confirmed, leading a champagne toast), the former president is caught on camera looking increasingly disconsolate in response to Putin’s more reactionary measures, as the two presidents grow gradually estranged. A particular sore point, on which Mansky critically dwells, is Putin’s reinstatement of the former Soviet anthem, given a bombastic facelift under the supervision of filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov: “It’s reddish,” Yeltsin distastefully observes upon hearing it, and the audible sense of betrayal cuts deeper than that guarded criticism.
It’s in confronting Putin on this particular issue that Mansky extracts his most revealing interview footage from the president — who otherwise occupies the film of which he is the ostensible star like a chilly cypher, giving away as little as possible beneath emotionless mantras and bland half-smiles. “Why should we associate it with the worst aspects of Soviet history?” says the man who earlier called the collapse of the Soviet Empire “the largest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.” Later, he chillingly adds, “Decisions should be taken in the interests of the state, whether they cause a positive or negative reaction.”
Yet Mansky’s attempt to press Putin on the ethical and ideological problems with such statements result in nothing more than placatory, plainly insincere reversals: “Democracy and democracies are more resilient and effective,” Putin concludes, to which the bewildered filmmaker can only admit that he has no idea how to respond. It’s not the first time in “Putin’s Witnesses” that such cheerfully delivered non sequiturs and bald hypocrisies call to mind a certain other president of a major world power. Some viewers are likely to be as disbelieving as Mansky by this point, as the sheer candor of the film’s extraordinary archive material takes on the aura of extremely well-acted fiction; at a time when certain politicians hide behind empty declarations of fake news, this eerie, unnerving film implores us to read their lips.