Great documentaries about the truth under Putin and Xi

Are we at the dawn of a new Cold War with two autocratic superpowers: China and its vassal Russia? Open societies versus censorship, equalized media and curated social media? The Movies that Matter festival in The Hague, which kicks off next week, will screen three excellent documentaries about free speech – or rather: the free image – in Russia and China.

The opening movie of Movies that Matter is Navalny, ‘festival favourite’ from last Sundance Festival. The film zooms in on the assassination attempt on Aleksey Navalny, the Kremlin’s louse in the fur. In August 2020, his plane made an emergency landing in Omsk, Siberia; the anti-corruption fighter turned out to be very ill after having administered the nerve agent novichok. After much haggling, he was allowed to recuperate in Germany; upon his return to Russia, he was handcuffed. Recently, Navalny was given another nine years in labor camp for, among other things, embezzlement – ​​a you-bak – through a kind of anti-show trial.

‘Fly on the wall’ documentary Navalny largely takes place in Germany. History is unfolding here before our eyes. Because after hacker journalist Christo Grozev of investigative collective Bellingcat identified the FSB agents who shadowed and poisoned Navalny, Navalny poses by phone as an impatient Kremlin official who wants to know what went wrong. The three FSB agents are not fooled, but a chemist named Konstantin Kudryavtsev explains that the poison was administered through Navalny’s underpants and that “there are many uncertainties and nuances in this kind of operation.”

Canadian Daniel Roher is biased. We see Navalny as a family man, people’s tribune and unwavering fighter against corruption. Doubtful episodes from his resume, such as his flirtation with racist patriots in 2006, come off without a hitch. But that’s also old news; after 2010, he became Putin’s most dangerous rival. With slick videos, his team unraveled the opulence of Putin’s right-hand man Dmitry Medvedev, most recently they arranged a virtual tour of the absurd palace that Putin would have built on the Black Sea.

In the film, Navalny seems to expect his social media profile to protect him; after all, when killed, Putin creates a formidable martyr. But the Kremlin’s poisoning seems partly secret – novichok quickly becomes untraceable in the body – but also a form of intimidation. So far, Navalny’s mastery of social media has guaranteed neither freedom nor security. And the question now is whether Russia’s relatively open internet will survive the invasion of Ukraine.

Still from the film ‘F@ck this job!’: a rise-and-fall chronicle of the Russian TV channel dozhd (‘Rain’).

‘F@ck this Job!’

No less relevant on Movies that Matter is the previously televised documentary F@ck this job! A rise-and-fall chronicle of television channel dozhd (‘Rain’) which shows how Russia changes in ten years from a half-hearted simulation of an open society to an autocratic monoculture. A film like a roller coaster: after a short ride up, a dizzying fall follows. After that it’s a matter of driving out.

F@ck this Job revolves around Natasha Sindejeva, initially the spoiled, hedonistic wife of banker Alexander Vinokurov. He finances TV channel in 2010 dozhd like other rich people give their wives a boutique. Power sees little harm in an ‘Optimism Channel’ about culture, showbiz and lifestyle. But Dozhd also wants to show the ‘real Russia’. That turns out to be naive. Real Russia is news – and thus soon political.

That love cools when Dozhd openly reports on Pussy Riot and the corruption investigations of Aleksej Navalny. Stick to beat the dog turned out to be a brash viewer’s question from Dozhd in 2014: should we have given up Leningrad to the Germans in 1941 to save civilian lives? The ‘Great Patriotic War’ is sacred; Dozhd is removed from the cable offer, loses 80 percent of its advertisers, loses its studio.

After that implosion follows a long agony. As an internet channel, the reach is shrinking to 60,000 viewers. Sindejeva goes from party animal to brooding dissident. Recently, Dozhd’s lights went out for good when the new media law came into effect, promising 15 years in prison for unwelcome news.

Still from the film ‘Eternal Spring’, a sad and inspiring documentary about an almost forgotten episode in China. Photo Lofty Sky Pictures

Eternal Spring

Yet even today’s Russia is still an oasis of freedom alongside the totalitarian suffocation of the police state of China. Eternal Spring is a beautifully animated, extremely sad and inspiring documentary about an already almost forgotten episode. In 1999, the state launched an unprecedented campaign against Falun Gong, a peaceful Buddhist movement. Thousands of adherents disappeared behind bars, were tortured to death and possibly even used as organ banks.

In the city of Changchun, where the movement originated, we follow a group of followers who hope to clear the name of Falun Gong through graffiti, flyers or balloons with slogans. Led by an ‘odd coule’ – frail student Liang Zhenxing and bully ‘Big Truck’ – they take an insanely brave act on March 5, 2002 by interrupting the state news, which broadcasts hate propaganda every night, with a video intended to spread to the masses. show that Falun Gong is harmless.

Eternal Spring has the tension of a heist film, although of course the state wins: the nonviolent action is followed by ruthless repression. The group is tracked down, tortured, beaten to death, and sentenced to decades in a penal camp. But one person survives.

Movies that Matter takes place from 8 to 16/4 at various locations in The Hague. Inl: moviesthatmatter.nl

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