The prolific Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney has two very different films screening as part of CPH:DOX 2020: Citizen K and Crazy, Not Insane.
Citizen K,which world premiered at Venice last year, explores modern Russia through the story of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an oligarch who was imprisoned and became an anti-Putin dissident.
Crazy, Not Insane delves into the work of Dr Dorothy Lewis, a US psychiatrist who hasworked with numerous serial killers, including Ted Bundy, Arthur Shawcross and Joel Rifkin. The film explores not howthey kill but whythey kill. HBO will air it later in 2020, and theatrical plans are being discussed.
CPH:DOX online screenings continue (for Danish IP addresses) until April 5.
Gibney’s dozens of past credits include Taxi To the Dark Side,Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Zero Days and Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief.He is also the founder of New York-based production company Jigsaw and one of the directors of the Netflix series The Innocence Files which starts streaming on April. 15.
Let’s talk about Citizen K first. Had you always been fascinated with Russia?
My gaze turned to Russia after the 2016 election, I got interested in how it worked. I felt that neither I nor most Americans knew that much about post-Soviet Russia, how power worked there. I’m a student of power and abuses of power, this became the vehicle for the story. My two producers – P.J. van Sandwijk and and John Battsek – introduced me to [Mikhail] Khodorkovsky’s story.
Khodorkovsky is not a straightforward hero, he’s a complicated figure.
If you want do a film about power it’s useful to find a way to penetrate the corridors of power. Khodorkovsky lived in those corridors of power for a long time. He was a player, he was the businessman player until he was laid low. His story seemed emblematic – he came from a humble background; rose to enormous power, influence and money; and then was cast down and ended up at the very bottom of the ladder in a Siberian prison, only to emerge as a dissident. He’s a character with a lot of shades of grey.
You even present Putin as not 100% villain.
It was interesting to me to go to Russia and see how many people were engaged with Putin. At least in the early days of his administration, people thought he was bringing a certain stability to the country after the raucous years of the 1990s. Putin seemed to provide a sense of stability until he began to lurch into authoritarianism. I found him a more three-dimensional character after I went to Russia.
Did you feel like you were in danger at any time you were making this film?
We were conscious we were probably being looked at and listened too. I had shot in Russia before for Zero Days. There was a sense that we were not free and easy. But its easier to film in Russia, than, say China, where you would be assigned a minder and the lid is kept tighter. We used burner phones and burner computers. Certain high-level interviews that were arranged were cancelled without notice. We were working with a Russian crew, that made a huge difference, we knew when we should push, when we should pull.
How long have you been working on Crazy, Not Insane, your other films screening at CPH:DOX?
I worked on Citizen K for two years andCrazy, Not Insane for about five years. Crazy…started with a dramatic project [a series for HBO] that I’m working on with Laura Dern, about the prison system. Through our research for that, we heard about Dr Dorothy Lewis.
I am interested in human psychology, I’m more interested in that the more films I make. Dorothy is like a detective of the mind. She definitely plumbs the dark side with a great sense of humour. I wanted this film to be about understanding, not exploiting.
Why was Dr Lewis such an intriguing character to follow?
These tapes of her examinations with killers and serial killers are fascinating because of the insight they give us into the repercussions of childhood trauma.
It’s kind of extraordinary to see how she can have a cognitive empathy for people who are killers. And personally, as someone who interviews people for a living, to see her approach to interviewing was great. I came away as a great admirer and I can be a better interviewer in the future using Dorothy’s tools.
Do you hope the film can be part of the discussion about the death penalty in the US?
This not a death penalty film but it gets into it by psychology. The death penalty has no deterrent value whatsoever. It actually encourages killing, the states with the the death penalty have higher homicide rates. What is this need as a society to kill people?
There are new revelations about Ted Bundy in the film.
Dorothy had a theory about Ted Bundy’s grandfather, and she was disappointed the theory didn’t hold up to the facts. That’s what is such an intriguing part of the investigative process.
But, yes, there is material that’s brand new about Bundy. He is still such a source of enormous fascination to people, this idea of is there such a thing as pure evil. Dorothy’s work attempts to say people aren’t just evil, people become who they are for reasons both biological and environmental.
Crazy, Not Insane also includes some animation, how did you decide on the right style of animation?
The animation was done by my son Nick Gibney and his team of animators. We found it a way of getting into a kind of mindscape that seemed interesting for the way that animation tickles your imagination, which is a psychological process.
They were able to explore it in a way that ultimately became abstract, the animation keeps growing in its breadth through the course of the film, there is a sort of freeform animation that starts to almost improvise like a jazz combo. An impression of Bundy’s mindscape.
Crazy, Not Insane was supposed to world premiere at SXSW and then have its international premiere at CPH:DOX.How did you feel when both physical festivals had to be cancelled?
Hugely disappointed for a lot of reasons. You want a premiere to mark the moment for your film. I love festivals. Festivals are a great moment for communal love of cinema, the full team is there, the audience is asking questions. But I am glad CPH:DOX was able to show the film online.
Are you able to do any work in these times of lockdown?
Jigsaw has an office in New York City so now we have people working remotely.
Obviously shooting is very difficult to do now, but there is a lot of editing that can be done, and research can be done. So we are working hard on a number of projects. We’re still pitching ideas, there will come a day when this will be over and then we can get back to work. For now we’re in a good position. We’re working away, remotely.