As much as U.S. mainstream culture is prone to exoticize people of color in ways that are dubious, consider its depiction of the Russians, our so-called enemies for so many years (see this season’s Homeland, which is populated by Russian thugs who make its Hezbollah characters seem like kittens). Do we give them a fair shake in the post-Cold War era? Half my blood comes from Russia, and I have to admit, I’ve got some strong if not entirely substantiated opinions about Russian billionaires and gangsters, as well as president Vladimir Putin, whom I’d rank pretty low on the human decency scale.
Well, with this week’s digital release of The Notorious Mr. Bout, which premiered at Sundance earlier this year, we have an opportunity to look more closely at a real Russian. In this case another infamous one: Viktor Bout, an arms trader sometimes referred to as the “merchant of death,” and who is now serving 25 years in a jail cell in New York State. Directed by Tony Gerber and Maxim Pozdorovkin, the documentary has been described as being sympathetic toward Bout. And how could it not be, considering that 90 percent (my wild, rough estimate) of the film is made up of his words, reels of his home videos and interviews with his wife and brothers? But maybe that’s jumping to simplistic, black-or-white, for-or-against, thinking. As Pozdorovkin reveals below, a good documentary should do more than tell us whom to like or hate, but to help us understand, which Mr. Bout does with flair and fluid storytelling.
Was it difficult to get Bout to give you access or was he eager to tell his story? Did your Russian heritage help make the connection?
Maxim Pozdorovkin: When we began discussing making a documentary out of Viktor Bout’s extensive home movie archive, he was fully disillusioned with the media. He had trusted journalists before and was always disappointed and sometimes betrayed. Bout’s initial reluctance and disillusionment was the starting point for six months of discussions and negotiations. During this period, we watched his home archive and met with him in prison to discuss his life in detail. From the beginning, we were clear that our film would not be an investigation that demonizes or exculpates him but rather a filmic portrait that raises questions and challenges the audience.
Do you think it’s fair to characterize the film as sympathetic to Bout? Maybe balanced? How would you characterize it?
Pozdorovkin: For many Russians, including myself, Viktor Bout is the quintessential 90s man, a person who plunged into the world of business after the collapse of the Soviet Union. My interest was in Bout as an historical character, as someone who witnessed and was a player in many of the major geopolitical transformations and conflicts of the last quarter century. Our film is first and foremost an attempt at a character study. It is a darkly comic, picaresque narrative that spans five continents and 25 years. Rendering Viktor Bout as a flawed human being and as a historically determined character, the film deconstructs a media image that had accreted around him. By pitting who Bout really was against the cartoonish notoriety and villainy of his media image, the film questions some basic assumptions about the arms trade. Specifically, the ways in which the complicity of governments and arms manufacturers in the illegal arms trade is obscured by a tendency to elevate the villainy of middlemen like Viktor Bout. The question for us as filmmakers was never one of journalistic balance or personal sympathy. Instead, what drove us is an exploration of the medium, of the ways that Bout’s home movies challenge and create dissonance with our preconceived notions about the grey world in which he operated.
Do you think there’s an unfair prejudice that Americans have about Russians…even today, after the Cold War? What have you seen and experienced that you could comment on?
Pozdorovkin: Riding the bus in Park City immediately after the film’s premiere at Sundance, I overheard the following exchange between two people who had just seen The Notorious Mr. Bout. “I swear Russians are the craziest white people.” “No doubt about it. They’re absolutely wild.” As a Russian who has lived in America for over 20 years, I have rarely felt unfair prejudice but have often experienced the kind of exoticism and fascination exemplified by the two audience members above. Whereas in today’s Russia, the Cold War-era rhetoric is alive and well, generating much anti-American sentiments, in the US there is less direct prejudice but a great deal more haze and confusion about Russia and its inhabitants. Such an exoticism results from a dearth of understanding and a less than stable foundation of historical knowledge. When doing interviews or Q&As for The Notorious Mr. Bout as well as for my previous film (Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer), I’ve learned to make very few assumptions about people’s understanding about where the characters in my films are coming from.