Aspen Film Academy Screenings: Alex Gibney’s ‘Citizen K’
IF YOU GO …
What: ‘Citizen K,’ presented by Aspen Film
Where: Academy Screenings at the Wheeler Opera House
When: Tuesday, Jan. 7, 5 p.m.
How much: $25
Tickets: Wheeler box office; aspenshowtix.com
Mikhail Khodorkovsky is an indisputably immoral man on an undeniably moral mission.
The former Russian oligarch’s many contradictions, from his days bilking millions of citizens in the days after the Berlin Wall fell to his run as the richest man in Russia to his 10 years in a Siberian prison and his current status as an exiled Putin foe and champion of democracy, are the subject of Alex Gibney’s new documentary “Citizen K.”
In it, Khodorkovsky serves as a viewer’s guide to post-Soviet gangster capitalism and its inner workings.
The film screens Tuesday at Aspen Film’s Academy Screenings series at the Wheeler Opera House.
“To hear Vladmir Putin tell it, Mikhail Khodorkovsky is a villain in a real-life gangster movie,” Gibney narrates early in the film. “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. Now out of prison, Khodorkovsky is looking for a third act.”
The Oscar-winning Gibney, since his 2005 breakout doc “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” has become a great American profiler of larger-than-life characters. He has tackled Hunter S. Thompson (“Gonzo”) and Lance Armstrong (“The Armstrong Lie”) and James Brown (“Mr. Dynamite”) and Scientology (“Going Clear”).
Khodorkovsky is an ideal match for Gibney as a storyteller, whose films also often seek to challenge entrenched power and expose economic exploitation.
Moving at a breakneck clip and infusing unexpected humor, “Citizen K” explains how the early 1990s Russia of economic freedom and Boris Yeltsin evolved into today’s faux-democracy of Vladmir Putin.
Khodorkovsky’s status as the exploitative oil tycoon turned activist was irresistible for Gibney.
“That drew my interest at a time when we all seem haunted by Russia’s role in the world,” Gibney says in the movie. “So I started a film about him.”
In the chaos after the end of the USSR, the young Khodorkovsky studied capitalism by reading a simple book about banks.
“I said, ‘Hey, I like this!’” he recalls in the film. “’OK, how can I create a bank?’”
He did so through a scheme that bought banking vouchers from unwitting Russians who didn’t understand what these pieces of paper were, and using that capital to buy the nation’s media and oil assets in the 1990s. He would become one of seven oligarchs controlling 50% of Russia’s economy.
With few enforceable laws reining in oligarchs and with Russia quickly becoming the murder capital of Europe in the ’90s, Khodorkovsky notes that Russia squeezed America’s decades-long Wild West period into a furious seven years.
“In Russia, laws are an iffy question,” he says.
But when Putin came to power, and Khodorkovsky criticized him, he found himself accused of murder, arrested and imprisoned with his assets seized and a decade in prison. The experience changed him, he says in the film.
He emerges from prison to found Open Russia, using some of the hundreds of millions of dollars that has leftover to fund anti-Putin activism and to sow seeds for a freer post-Putin Russa.
“Citizen K” was one of two major documentaries the ever-prolific Gibney made in 2019. “The Inventor,” his news-making exposé on Silicon Valley fraudster Elizabeth Holmes, debuted on HBO in March. Neither is among the 15 films short-listed for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, though both are helping inform the national conversation.
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