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Crafting a Literal Political Thriller: Alex Gibney’s Documentary “Citizen K”

Editor Michael J. Palmer blends archival footage with newly-shot interviews for prolific filmmaker Alex Gibney’s portrait of the disgraced Russian oligarch-turned political dissident who dared to challenge Vladimir Putin.

Now playing in Los Angeles, Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney’s newest documentary feature, Citizen K, is an intimate yet sweeping look at post-Soviet Russia from the perspective of the enigmatic Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former oligarch-turned political dissident. Benefitting from the chaos that ensued after the dissolution of the U.S.S.R., Khodorkovsky was able to amass a fortune in financing and oil production and became the richest man in Russia. But when he accused the new Putin regime of corruption, Khodorkovsky was arrested, his assets were seized and, following a series of show trials, he was sentenced to more than ten years in prison. Today, as an exile living in London, he continues to speak out against Putin’s two-decade stranglehold on power.

Expertly researched and photographed, Citizen K uses Khodorkovsky’s story as a way to explore the complex interplay between oligarchy and government and its destructive effect on democracy, in Russia and beyond. Produced by Passion Pictures, Jigsaw Productions and Storyteller Productions, Citizen K is written and directed by Gibney, who also served as producer alongside John Battsek, P.J. Van Sandwijk, George Chignell and Erin Edeiken. Employing a mix of archival footage and formal interviews shot in London, Germany and Russia, the documentary feature was picked up for distribution by Greenwich Entertainment and is set for a limited nationwide release early next year.

Gibney conducted extensive interviews with Khodorkovsky, who remains as quick, canny and mercurial as he appears in the found footage shot during his heyday. The story took Gibney not only to London, but to Germany and inside various locations in Russia as well, where he spoke to Khodorkovsky’s former colleagues, foreign journalists who reported on the country’s fledgling attempts at democracy and backslide into dictatorship, and average citizens. The challenge for Gibney was Khodorkovsky’s taciturnity. “He was a tough nut to crack,” Gibney states. “He’s a very guarded man and, going in, I wondered how honest and forthright he would be.”

Tough nut or otherwise, Gibney found that the best way to approach Khodorkovsky in interviews was to be forthright, according to an interview with Moviemaker magazine. “I hate to use the word ‘tricks,’ because it means that I’m trying to get one over on the subject, as if that’s the only way to get something out of them. I’m a big believer in the idea that most people want to tell their stories. The ‘trick,’ if you will, would be to get them to believe that they can trust you to tell it — that if they’re going to tell their story then you’re really going be a good listener. That’s the key,” he says, noting that it’s also crucial to avoid being too combative with subjects:

“Sometimes, if you’re too confrontational in an interview, you’re taking the attention away from the subject and putting it on yourself. That said, you also don’t want to be a patsy for someone to spin propaganda or raw fiction. So, sometimes I’ll raise an eyebrow or ask a question like, ‘Really? That’s not the way I heard it.’ But I’m rarely confrontational as a way of saying, ‘Here, I have this, and what you’re saying is a lie.’ Sometimes I’ll bring up a record of what people have said in the past, but I try to engage with people in a very conversational way rather than with a series of numbered questions.”

One revelatory moment in the film that reverberates occurs when Gibney asks Khodorkovsky what he thinks the current Russian president’s biggest nightmare would be. Khodorkovsky’s reply is accompanied by remarkable found footage of Putin wandering the empty halls of the Kremlin. “Khodorkovsky said that Putin’s biggest nightmare would be wandering the halls of power alone and no one taking his calls,” says Gibney. “Playing his answer over the footage gave it an eerie quality like something out of Kubrick’s ‘The Shining.’”

In preparation for the interviews, Gibney immersed himself in contemporary Russian history, reading everything he could lay his hands on, including David Hoffman’s “The Oligarchs,” Arkady Ostrovsky’s “The Invention of Russia,” Martin Sixsmith’s “Putin’s Oil,” and Peter Pomerantsev’s “Nothing is Real and Everything is Possible,” among many others as well as turning to his expert team of researchers to search for and amass a trove of pertinent historical/cultural information and film footage.

According to Michael J. Palmer, the editor of Citizen K, “since we’re Americans and the film is about Russia, before we got started it was important for us all to get inside the mindset of the country and figure out how it functions.”

Palmer coordinated closely with Beatrice Read, the invaluable archive producer at their partner Passion Pictures in London, a city that is the current outpost of ex-pat oligarchs and where Khodorkovsky resides. Separate researchers in the U.S. and inside Russia were tasked with culling internet material to complement television and other public footage from the early ‘90s on. A team of Russian-born interns was hired to help translate the material and highlight significant information that might be otherwise overlooked. Helpfully, Associate Producer Ophelia Harutyunyan also spoke Russian. “Finding Russian speakers was key, both technically and to orient us into the mindset of Russian society,” Palmer contends.

The materials would later be supplemented by original footage shot by Gibney’s production crew in London, Germany and, most importantly, inside Russia. Producers — George Chignell in London and Erin Edeiken in New York — coordinated the international effort.

The gathering of all the new and archival footage and creating a cogent narrative that would tell Khodorkovsky’s story within the context of contemporary Russian history was a precarious balancing act for Palmer. “Before you put it together, you have to calculate how much the audience needs to know about Russian history in order to understand Khodorkovsky,” he says. “How much do we need to tell them about Boris Yeltsin and his relationship with Putin, about U.S. involvement in post-Soviet Russia’s economy? Always, the historical narrative had to be in service of our main subject. Otherwise, we were in danger of losing focus on Khodorkovsky.”

Another point of concern was establishing some kind of empathy with Citizen K himself, a man who is equal parts charming and troubling, another balancing act, but one which Palmer relished. “Like in all good cinema, you want a main character who is complicated, ephemeral,” he says. “Through him we gain first person insight into how power is leveraged and abused in Russia. Again, we wanted to leave it up to the audience to draw their own conclusions.”

Gibney’s collaboration with Palmer also provided a fresh perspective on the interviews with Khodorkovsky. “Michael…noticed something about Khodorkovsky and made a kind of visual trope out of it, which is that he does a kind of half-smile, half-shrug,” Gibney tells Moviemaker magazine. “Sometimes that can be like, ‘I don’t give a f—,’ sometimes it can be like, ‘That’s the way things go, so it goes,’ and sometimes it’s like, ‘I don’t know what the hell is going on.’ It’s something that Michael went back to over and over again, a visual tic. That ended up being both a tell for us and a way of visually expressing his nature. He’s hard to figure sometimes and there’s a lot of mystery in him still.”

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