Written by James Read
05 Monday 05th March 2012

Cyril Tuschi's documentary has created quite a stir, with the German director being followed through Siberia during filming, and having his film stolen twice. No surprise really, given the controversy and opinion surrounding its subject. We spoke to the director to find out more about Khodorkovsky, the elections, and living in a Bond film.

Where did your interest in the story begin? You were at a film festival in Siberia...

I have always loved contrast in story-telling, and I was just shocked at how much money there was in a city that was so empty. I found out that the festival was financed by Khodorkovsky, and that he was now in prison. I thought that could be a good starting point for a fictional drama, but that changed over the years. I was interested in this clash of the titans [with Putin], but mostly in the self-contradictions of Khodorkovsky.

There are a lot of apparent contradictions - how does one of the richest men in the world - a corrupt oil baron no less - become a martyr?

Definitely - I think it's very Russian to be extreme but to change position. Just the other day [self-exiled fellow oilman] Boris Berezovsky, who was always regarded as the mean oligarch and puppet master, posted two pages of confessional on Facebook about his ongoing legal battle with Roman Abramovich, admitting his guilt and saying he was too greedy! It's always so stagy.

Did you have difficulty speaking with current politicians? We don't hear much from them in the film?

Well, I didn't have access to the Kremlin side, which is sad. Some people tell me that I'm biased, but I don't think I am. I tried to balance the film, but since the other side didn't want to speak to me at all it was difficult. I included some archive footage of Putin, and I wanted to speak to the propaganda minister [deputy prime minister and former colleague of Khodorkovsky] Vladislav Surkov, and I tried for years through formal and informal channels, but it didn't work out. But I think I was balanced - I could've edited the film to show 90 minutes of Khodorkovsky as the Devil or as the white knight, but both of those would have been disingenuous and boring.

Since the subject matter is controversial and current, you had some difficulties while filming with interview access and being followed. Tell me about that.

Well, sometimes it was exciting and felt like I was in a James Bond movie, but other times my heart was going and I was really... sobered. But nobody harassed me physically.

When you had copies of the film stolen, both during editing and before the premiere at the Berlinale, did you feel that your personal safety was at threat, as well as the safety of the film?

Yes, I was really frightened. I moved out of my flat and the office, but I never really thought it was FSB. Everyone around me thought it was, even my few secret service contacts. The police have now arrested three German guys, who were Mac specialists. I mean, of course there's still the possibility that they got a tip-off from the Russians, and made a deal that they could keep the computers if the FSB got the data. I'm really happy that they've been arrested though, so I can sleep more easily. I had been carrying a knife, and I'm happy to have stopped doing that.

[Speaking a couple of days before Russia's elections] What do you think will happen in the elections this weekend?

It's really difficult to tell. It could be that people are going to demonstrate on a large scale straight after the elections. The worst thing would be if Putin wins in the first round, and his opponents will lose their guts and fall back on self-pity. I think if people lose their fear and stick to being rebellious, they can make a change.

Do you think the elections would have been different if he were free?

Oh definitely! I don't know how, but of course. He would be a symbol for a changing Russia.

Do you feel that Khodorkovsky will become a politician?

He will be a political symbol for the opposition whether he wants it or not. But I think his plans lie in the direction of freeing the rest of the Yukos [Khodorkovsky's oil company] employees, taking some time out with his family, and working on his educational programmes. But I don't think he will be entirely free to choose.

Do you think going to prison was necessary to change public opinion about him?

Perhaps going to jail was calculated in some way [Khodorkovsky was in America just before his arrest, and probably knew he would be detained upon his return], but I don't believe he could have planned to go away for such a long time. No sane person would do that!

How is the WikiLeaks project going? Have you spoken to Ryan Gosling yet about taking the lead (Tuschi has previously expressed interest in casting him as Assange)?

Oh no! Don't tell anybody about that! [laughs] I'm at a crucial time with that one. The Gosling thing is really delicate - I've already told you too much! I'm waiting for the fourth draft, and I know that some big shot guys like Spielberg are working on a Khodorkovsky project too. I want to try and contact Gosling directly, because if I go through his agent he'll never look at it.

He might take in on as a bit of a pet project, a bit like he did with Drive and Winding Refn.

Yeah, I think if I can speak to him he might be interested, but if I try and go through his agent it'll take at least a year. So I'm going to spend the next few weeks doing the next draft, and then I'm going to send it to him in April. I don't want to spend another five years on my next film!

Fingers crossed - Ryan, if you're reading this then get in touch.


Khodorkovsky is out now, and available to stream or on DVD. Find out more about the film here.

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