Alex Gibney on Power in a Post-Truth World | CITIZEN K | TIFF 2019

Alex Gibney on Power in a Post-Truth World | CITIZEN K | TIFF 2019


[Dramatic music] [Gibney] I’m interested in power and I’m certainly interested
in abuse of power, and the great thing about documentaries is they’re a kind of inquiry. You go on a journey. In the beginning, when
I started making docs, and I started out as
a fiction film editor, then I kinda dropped out
and took a left turn, and started making docs. I would have a plan, and
I would execute the plan, and it was really a
terrible way to make docs, because then you left out
the potential for surprise, even formal surprise. Very often, the form of my docs is not
firmly established until later. Docs are where you write
the script at the end instead of the beginning. On this film, CITIZEN K, I wanted to shoot an extended interview with Mikhail Khodorkovsky. But then I went to Russia, and in Russia, the style of the film changed, because we wanted to get a
feeling and a vibe of the place. And then, in the cutting
room, you put it together in a way that seems to cohere. [Dramatic music] [Film voiceover] To hear
Vladimir Putin tell it, Mikhail Khodorkovsky is a villain in a real-life gangster movie. But to Putin’s opponents,
Khodorkovsky’s 10 years in a Siberian prison made him a hero for the cause of human
rights and democracy. [Gibney] I start my process differently depending on the kind of film that it is. But let’s say I’m doing a portrait, like I am this time on
Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The first thing that starts is with a tremendous amount of research, both archival research and print research, and talk-to-people research,
’cause I wanna get my head in a place where I feel I can
begin to inhabit his world. And in this case, I wanted to do a series of very long interviews, a
bunch of really long interviews with him, before I went to Russia, and then a bunch of
interviews with him after. Along the way, I’m
discovering kind of the- not only the story, but the style in which it should be told. I mean, in this one, we used to
joke in the cutting room, it’s kind of like ONCE
UPON A TIME IN THE EAST. It’s got that sense of scope, brashness, explosiveness that you
would expect from a western. So inhabiting that kind
of genre sensibility of the western was useful,
I think, in this movie. But all that, I discovered with my editor, Mikey Palmer, along the way. And there’s a kind of rough
chronology to this story, but we start very much in the present. And then we dip back, and
we keep going in and out of present and past, and
that was a conscious choice that we would make. And one of the things we discovered while we were in Russia was that there was an election going on. Well, what better way to talk about democracy than an election? We focus on Khodorkovsky and Putin, but there’s elements of the story that kinda demand that you see a certain amount of background. Like, Khodorkovsky’s an oligarch, so what about the world of the oligarchs? What about the world of
post-Soviet capitalism, that kind of Wild West world? So we inhabited that. I mean, the first cut was
much longer than this. It was almost four hours, most of which, because we discovered this world, the world of Russia in the ’90s that I think we’ve all forgotten about. [Dramatic music] Looking from outside at Russia, we went from the Soviet Union to Putin’s Russia. Well, there’s this really
interesting period in between where a lot of that is formed,
so we dug deep in there, and then, at some point, we got lost, which is what happens
in editing. But then, slowly but surely, it’s
like you boil the roux. You get down to the essence,
and then you gotta make sure that all the beats in the
story fold in on each other. That’s what editing is all about for me, is taking the unruly world of real life and transforming it into a narrative that we recognize in dramatic terms. [Dramatic music] [Men speaking, cameras flashing] I thought Khodorkovsky’s story
would be an interesting way to get at just how power works in Russia. There’s a great conflict
in Khodorkovsky’s life, and the conflict is between
him and Vladimir Putin, and they have a dust-up in 2003 where Khodorkovsky accuses Putin of corruption publicly, on television. [Chuckling] Well, the
repercussions from that were swift. Any number of months later,
he found himself in prison. [Dramatic music] The other thing I discovered
that was interesting is when you get outside the big cities, Vladimir Putin is really popular. And from the West, the
perspective of the West, I think we think of Vladimir
Putin with the heel of his boot on the throat of every citizen there. Actually, as somebody who’s
brought stability to Russia, who claims to be “making
Russia great again,” I think he’s gotten a lot of support. So you go out into the
country, you realize Vladimir Putin is a
pretty good politician. What was chilling about
it was that, I think, we in the United States like
to create this separation between the two countries, but particularly with Trump’s
U.S. and Putin’s Russia, there are eerie similarities. In Russia, it’s not North Korea. It’s kind of a soft authoritarianism, but the soft authoritarianism happens by the person at the top, Putin, taking control of the
“narrative,” of truth itself, and twisting and bending it to his needs, until nothing means anything except what Putin says it is, and that is where Trump wants to go. “… we are fighting the fake news. It’s fake, phony, fake.”
[Audience applauding] [Gibney] There’s a lot of
talk about “We live in a post-truth world.” I think, to some extent,
there’s always been a tension between, let’s say, truth and belief, and it’s why I think the best docs for me are the ones that both explore belief but then show things the
way you don’t expect them, necessarily, to be, which is
in a more truthful fashion. And it’s usually in shades of
grey where you find the truth. It’s important to be fair. The other thing I think about, too, particularly when I’m
doing a portrait of people or even for side characters in a film, I now go through an exercise
where I imagine the subject of the film that I’m talking
about is sitting next to me while I’m watching the film. And sometimes… I’m not
there to please the subject. I’m there to please the audience, and to engage the audience, and so, if I’m gonna be
critical, that’s fine, but I have to be willing
to be able to defend that face to face with that person. So that’s kind of this exercise
I have in the cutting room. I’m always thinking about the audience when I’m making the films, and I think it’s important. You get into your own head,
but then you’ve gotta think about how other people are gonna see it. [Dramatic music] Power is how the world works. You know, we talk about power… It’s not always a bad thing. If you wanna move mountains, if you wanna change
things, you need to have a certain power, but if power accrues in too few hands, without
any sense of accountability or rule of law, then we, the
people, don’t have any power. A lot of films focus on victims, and I understand that,
because you wanna have empathy with people who’ve been mistreated. When it comes to abuses of
power, those are crimes, and when it comes to crimes,
I guess I’m more interested in the perps than the victims, because if you wanna stop
crime, you gotta understand how the criminals work,
and it’s not enough to wring your hands and say, “Oh, something bad has happened.” You gotta get your hands dirty and understand how crime works. [Dramatic music]

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