NEW YORK — “Khodorkovsky,” a documentary about the jailed former Russian oil tycoon, has had its New York premiere before a sold-out audience. Whether audiences in Russia will be able to see it remains in question, however.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former CEO of the oil giant Yukos, has been in prison since his arrest in 2003. He was initially charged with tax fraud and then re-tried and sentenced last year on charges of embezzlement. He could be imprisoned until 2017.
Khodorkovsky maintains his innocence and says he is in jail for daring to challenge the Kremlin by becoming politically active. Amnesty International has declared him a “prisoner of conscience.”
The film’s director, Cyril Tuschi of Germany, has made no secret of his sympathy for Khodorkovsky or his anger at the European Court of Human Rights. The court ruled in May that Khodorkovsky had failed to prove his prosecution was politically motivated but did find that Russia had committed serious violations of Khodorkovsky’s rights during his arrest and pretrial detention.
In a question-and-answer session after the New York screening, Tuschi said the European Court’s ruling ignored the central truth in the case.
“Every child sees the motivation there,” he said.
Tuschi also suggested that the Kremlin influenced the decision of the court. “Why the hell in Europe could they press the court?” he asked.
Khodorkovsky’s son Pavel, who was in attendance at the New York premiere, has described the new film as a call to action.
“This [film] really touches people and asks them some personal questions: ‘What can we do in practical terms? Is there a petition to be signed? Should we appeal to the government?’ In other words, people are ready to act,” he told RFE/RL’s Russian Service last month. “This film calls for action, and I think it is remarkable.”
Tuschi was the first to interview Khodorkovsky on camera and uses Khodorkovsky’s letters to him as a narrative device throughout the film, copies of which were stolen twice in the lead-up to its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival in February.
”The New York Times” called “Khodorkovsky” “visually snazzy” and said that Khodorkovsky “rather eloquently portrays himself as a victim of human rights abuse,” but notes that among the film’s talking heads, no one from the Kremlin is represented.
Reactions from the crowd at the November 30 screening were mixed. Most praised the film, with one attendee telling Tuschi it was a “masterpiece” that shows Khodorkovsky “warts and all.”
Mikhail Khodorkovsky in a Moscow courtroom in MayMikhail Khodorkovsky in a Moscow courtroom in May
Gal Smelyansky, a Russian woman who has been living in New York for the last 22 years, attended the screening with her husband. She said she believes the film’s portrayal of the Khodorkovsky case, as well as of the political environment in Russia, to be accurate.
“I can tell you, this is very true. It’s true of Russia, it’s true of the environment, it’s true of the country,” she said.
“People care, but money will decide in favor of oil and politics, especially in [Russia],” her husband, Timothy, said. “So I think he will sit in prison for the entire 12 years.”
Johan Dejpar, a student from Stockholm, was more cautious in taking the film at face value.
“I remember when he was arrested because I was doing international relations at the time. Everyone was 100 percent certain that this was clearly a political [case]. He was challenging Putin and that’s why he went to jail,” Dejpar said. “But watching this, you realize, maybe that’s preempting the arrest of the man and there could actually be other reasons — multiple reasons — for why he was taken out of the game.”
The first public screening in Russia of “Khodorkovsky” was held on December 1 at a small cinema in the suburbs of Moscow. Tuschi acknowledged that many Russian theaters that originally were going to show the movie later changed their minds, including six out of seven theaters in Moscow.
“Now, everyone is thinking, was it the Kremlin or was it self-censorship?” Tuschi said. “I think it was self-censorship.”
Tuschi said if he isn’t able to promote the documentary through traditional cinemas in Russia, he plans to go to schools and clubs. If all avenues are blocked, he said, he’ll upload a Russian version of “Khodorkovsky” to the Internet.
He said the film is being distrubuted in many countries surrounding Russia, including Estonia, Finland, Lithuania, the Czech Republic, and Poland.
Khodorkovsky himself has expressed hope of being able to watch the documentary.