Vitaly Mansky • Director
by Vladan Petkovic, Cineuropa
"Putin in 1999 and what he is today are absolutely incomparable"
We met up with Russian filmmaker Vitaly Mansky at the Odesa IFF to discuss his latest award-winning movie, Putin’s Witnesses
At this year’s Odesa International Film Festival, Cineuropa sat down with Russian director Vitaly Mansky to talk about his Karlovy Vary award-winning film Putin's Witnesses.
Vitaly Mansky • Director
Cineuropa: How did you get into a position of being so close to Yeltsin and Putin?
Vitaly Mansky: In 1999, I was the head of the Documentary department at the national broadcaster. Since I was a civil servant, I had to lobby for films I wanted to shoot myself. One of those was about Gorbachev. By that time, Gorbachev had basically been excluded from public life for nine years, so he was a no-no for TV. So my bosses told me we needed to make another film, which should be about Yeltsin. So this idea to make a movie about Yeltsin was sort of required work in order to be able to make one about Gorbachev. That's how we started to shoot it, and how I ended up next to the highest levels of Russian government.
And then, in that comfortable balance that we struck between Yeltsin and Gorbachev, Putin appeared, as he was appointed as the next acting president by Yeltsin. I immediately decided, of my own accord – as the offices in Russia are closed for most of December and January, and no one really works then – to make a film that would reveal this man’s background.
Already in early January, I started to gather footage with people who knew Putin from school, from playing sports… I also received some footage with his schoolteacher, and this was very vivid and very interesting, so without a second thought or any hidden agenda, I decided to give this footage to Putin, as a human gesture. Then, out of the blue, he invited me to meet him in his office and asked me some questions about his friends or the people who we had filmed before that, and I suggested that I could go to the schoolteacher and do some more filming with her. That’s how this film started.
At what point did you decide to use this material to make this film?
Until 2012, I didn't think about these materials at all. But then, when Putin returned to the presidency, we understood that he wasn't going anywhere and that we were deceived and lied to. In 2014, when the war in Ukraine started, I knew that I had to make this film, and I just had to wait until I had the time to do it.
What was the perception of Putin in society when he appeared on the scene? In the film, it seems like there was an immediate awe and fear of this man.
You have to understand the historical background here, which is more important than the attitude towards Putin. In 1999, the country had already had a president for four years who was sick, ineffective and surrounded by people who were a sort of éminence grise, with power that wasn't legal. The country was, subconsciously, expecting a new, young person.
Secondly, there was an atmosphere of fear and danger of war, and in this situation, the country was also waiting for a strong leader, a protector. Political strategists were looking for a person of that kind, and that turned out to be Putin. So that fear was part of that expectation, of what society was demanding.
In the film, you imply that the bombings of residential buildings that were happening at the time were part of Putin's election campaign.
I am not speaking as an expert; I am telling you about the feeling I had about it. With the war [in Chechnya] at the time and buildings getting blown up, I felt that this campaign had been devised by political image makers and that it was the climate of fear that had led to the success of the appointed president. And the news agenda was created artificially in such a way as to create more and more fear.
What were your feelings towards Putin at the time? In the film, you seem cautious but also willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Firstly, I was part of the society, so its moods influenced mine. Secondly, I knew the people who masterminded his successor campaign. I trusted them and sympathised with them, and their arguments were well founded. As for Putin himself, as an ex-KGB person, I had my doubts about him. So there was this imbalance, this contradiction within which I was operating.
You had a camera operator, but you also used a small camera yourself.
I had a camera operator, and my camera was an additional element. But in the end, it turned out that my camera was the closest to Putin and the most important in revealing what was happening. My cameraman was sort of scared, although there was no actual danger, but he was afraid to get closer and follow the man. I felt comfortable doing that, so as a result, my camera, which was not professional, turned out to be more useful.
In your movie, the fear of people being close to power is almost tangible.
The films that I shot were always watched by government officials, and even just looking at how I was talking to the president would make them shiver. They couldn’t understand how I dared to come up to Putin and ask him these questions. I could also see how these civil servants and ministers would appear when they would come to the president's office. We usually see them as strong and powerful men, but they would come to his office with their heads lowered and knees almost bent. It's incredible how coming close to this big power changes people. I have no idea how it happens – nor how I didn't have this fear. Maybe I'm not normal in that sense.
How do you see the Putin of that time compared to the person he is now? And how is this reflected in the perception of the film?
Power changes any person who comes into it, and Russian power in particular leaves people with no choice. It destroys them completely. So the Putin that I knew and the person that we see now are absolutely incomparable.
I always say that documentaries are mirrors in which we see our own reflection. And for this one, I would say it is a rear-view mirror in a car that is moving forward, but which helps us to see back – this is how one reviewer put it; he really understood the aim of this film and why I made it in the first place.