Regarded as one of the most important documentarians of the last couple decades, Alex Gibney has focused his camera on con-artists and fallen heroes in films such as The Armstrong Lie, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief and The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley. His 2007 doc Taxi to the Dark Side, about the torture and murder of an Afghan taxi driver by U.S. troops in 2002, earned the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
Gibney’s latest work, Citizen K, takes aim at Russian president and enigmatic power broker Vladimir Putin, via the story of Putin opponent Mikhail Khodorkovsky. In the 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union and the birth of “Old West” capitalism in Russia, Khodorkovsky became one of the country’s seven foremost oligarchs, heading the Yukos Oil Company. But in the early ’00s, when Putin took control of the state and began to implement a more authoritarian government, Khodorkovsky spoke out against the president. He was arrested in 2003 on charges of fraud, a move widely regarded as politically motivated. After two (rather theatrical) trials, Khodorkovsky was sentenced to 14 years in prison, but was pardoned by Putin in 2013 after serving a decade and garnering international support.
Now living in exile in London, Khodorkovsky, once regarded as the richest man in Russia, has become one of Putin’s foremost critics. His initiative, Open Russia, advocates for democracy, independent media and aid for political prisoners. Gibney’s film includes extensive interviews with Khodorkovsky, as well as journalists, activists and on-the-street Russian citizens both pro- and anti-Putin.
Citizen K had its Iowa premiere on Sunday (weeks before its Los Angeles premiere) at FilmScene—The Chauncey. Gibney was in Iowa City for the event, first joining University of Iowa students for a dialogue hosted by the UI Lecture Committee, then, after the screening of Citizen K, sitting down for an audience Q&A moderated by FilmScene’s interim director Andrew Sherburne.
“My films in a way take pools of black and white and blend them back into gray,” Gibney told the audience.
Citizen K’s official theatrical release date is Nov. 22, and the film will be available to stream on Amazon’s Prime Video in early 2020.
Gibney discussed the themes of his work, what Americans should take away from Citizen K and his approach to tackling such sweeping subject matter in questions asked by Sherburne during the audience Q&A, and by Little Village in an interview afterwards. A selection of these responses are collected below.
AS: Your films oftentimes grapple with issues of power — referenced in this film is that power is a bit of a facade, an illusion. Whether it’s Lance Armstrong or the Church of Scientology or the story we just saw here, over and over you’re looking at these powerful institutions or individuals and dissecting that and deconstructing those facades. I wonder, what sort of lessons have you learned in a career investigating power?
Be careful what you wish for. Look, power in some ways gets a bad rap. Without power, we couldn’t get anything done. We need power to be able to move things — to make change to advance civilization, power is necessary. But I also became interested over time in abuses of power and particularly in terms of promises made that are really illusions. With [the group of UI students I met with] before the screening, somebody raised the notion of the Wizard of Oz and the man behind the curtain. And I’ve been interested in being Toto, I guess, and pulling back the curtain to show the guy operating the levers behind the Great and Powerful Oz. And I think the more we do that, the more all of us do that, the better it is, because then we don’t fall for the trick of the illusion. It’s a useful paradigm.
But at the same time, I think my films are interested in the way we’re attracted to those images of the Great and Powerful Oz. We’re attracted to the powerful, the successful, and if they run cons on us, part of the crime of that is the con that they’re running and part of the crime is on us. In other words, our gullibility, our willingness to believe in this magnificent lie that is too good to be true.
AS: How much of this film is about Russia and how much of it is perhaps about America?
I think it’s all about Russia, and I was very conscious not to use the words “Donald Trump” once in this film. But that said, and going way beyond Trump, I think the film serves as a kind of cautionary tale, in a lot of ways. Let’s not pay attention to Trump for a second, but let’s pay attention to someone who recently entered the presidential fray on the Democratic side, Michael Bloomberg. One might call him an oligarch. I think there’s a cautionary lesson here about what happens when too much power and wealth is concentrated in too few hands.
I was really interested, in this film, in some of the parallels in terms of how fictions become real, because the fictions are so powerful, and how televised imagery ends up becoming quite a potent myth-making machine. It’s a fact that Donald Trump, to steer it back to Trump for a second, is one of the worst businessmen in history, and yet he became hugely popular by being a successful businessman through an essentially fictional TV show called The Apprentice, and that gave him enormous political credibility. That’s really interesting, because Vladimir Putin was a nobody, he was a two-bit functionary, but television turned him into a kind of James Bond-like figure, probably also because he was complicit in the bombing of some innocent civilians who he then tried to say he was protecting.
I think the other aspect that it is a cautionary tale for us in this country is what happens when the rule of law gets eroded. I think you can see, whatever you think of Khodorkovsky — and he’s a complicated character — we can agree that particularly by the second trial, the rule of law was a joke. Now, he took advantage of the absence of the rule of law to make his fortune, but by the time he’s in prison and they’re accusing him of stealing all of his own oil after they’ve already accused him of not paying taxes for having sold the oil, you get the idea that it’s a pretty slippery slope. Once political leaders manage to subvert powerful institutions which are meant to protect important checks and balances and the freedom of us all, then it’s a pretty slippery slope.
LV: The documentary covers over 30 years of Russian history. I feel like this could be a miniseries or more. Are there any rabbit holes you went down that ended up on the cutting room floor?
I would have liked to have spent more time on the ’90s in Russia. To me, that was fascinating, and that brief period where Putin comes to and consolidates power. In the four-hour cut, that’s where most of the time was, was in that period.
LV: Did you have a four-hour cut you had to whittle down?
LV: Do you think you’ll ever release that?
No. I wish we could. The problem with docs is always archival footage. I always wanted to release the original cut of the Armstrong film, as embarrassing as that might have been, but we could never do that because we would have to license all that footage.
LV: Was the language barrier ever a problem, both in the interviews and traveling Russia?
I had an associate producer, Ophelia Harutyunyan, who’s Armenian but she’s a fluent Russian speaker. So that was hugely helpful, and also our crew was Russian, entirely Russian. And they were awesome, because they really knew how to operate inside Russia. Khodorkovsky, the interview with him was very consciously done simultaneously translated. He had an earpiece and I had an earpiece, and we could communicate in pretty much real time. … It could be back and forth very quickly. Sometimes a little bit of a lag, but also — I can’t say I got good enough at Russian, but I got good enough at knowing the flow of the sentences and could pick out enough words so that I could then interject a little bit more quickly over time. It got to be more fluid; I was surprised at how well it worked.
LV: Did you consult any specific books?
I did, there were a number of great books I dug deep on. David Hoffman wrote a book called The Oligarchs, which is incredible. Masha Gessen wrote a book on Putin that’s very good [The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin]. Peter Pomerantsev wrote a book that’s magnificent — Nothing is True and Everything is Possible. And Martin Sixsmith’s book on Khodorkovsky [Putin’s Oil: The Yukos Affair and the Struggle for Russia]. And I read a lot more books on Russia. I felt like I had to get into the zone because that was not a country or a period I knew nearly enough about. But David Hoffman’s book I went back to over and over and over again, because he was the one that did a really good job of showing the kind of raw exploitation and dirty deals that happened between business and government in the ’90s … You begin to see that unholy alliance between big money and the power behind politics that can be a scary thing.