Dir/scr: Andrei Nekrasov. Ger. 2007. 113mins.
A political hot potato dropped into the Cannes official selection at the last moment, Andrei Nekrasov's Rebellion: The Litvinenko Case is likely to spark more news stories than it answers questions.
The highly polemical film covers the political context behind the lethal poisoning in London last year of Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB agent and forthright critic of President Putin. It features interviews with Litvinenko himself and his widow Marina Litvinenko; as well as former intelligence colleagues, controversial Russian businessman Boris Berezovsky, and even ex-KGB agent Andrei Lugovoi, the man recently charged by British authorities with Litvinenko's murder.
A dense, confusing flow of information and unsubstantiated charges against Putin and his intelligence services, together with the rudiments of a personal portrait of Litvinenko, make this a confusing and a demanding film. Its screening during the final weekend of Cannes, announced only a few days earlier, has enhanced the film's must-see status, but its weaknesses as an argued-through documentary is likely to emerge in the cold post-festival light of day.
The film will be a must for TV rather than theatrical sales, but broadcasts are likely to require some contextualisation in the form of additional commentary, panel discussions, etc. New developments in the case, in the wake of charges against Lugovoi, will also make the film prone to obsolesence unless its makers have continual updates in mind.
Rebellion is a personal statement by documentary film-maker Nekrasov, whose previous film about Litvinenko, My Friend Sasha: A Very Russian Murder, was screened earlier this year by the BBC. Comprising new and previously seen footage, the film sets interviews with Litvinenko and others against a review of the iniquities of the Russian government before and since Vladimir Putin's rise to power.
Most of the material concerns the Russian government's prosecution of the war in Chechnya, and repeats Litvinenko's charges that the 1999 bombings in Moscow, attributed to Chechen terrorists, were actually ordered by the Russian authorities in order to promote the Chechen war and so bolster their own power.
Other charges against the KGB and its successor, the FSB, include the testimony of a soldier previously stationed in Chechnya, who claims that FSB officers sold Russian weapons to the Chechens, and even sold individual soldiers as slaves. A group of FSB officers are seen on videotape expressing discomfort at having been ordered to 'liquidate' opponents of the Russian government.
Andrei Lugovoi himself is interviewed and proves remarkably knowledgable about the properties of Polonium-120, the isotope used to kill Litvinenko. After explaing how a small trace would suffice to lethally contaminate a teacup, he turns to Nekrasov, or his camera operator, and offers him a cup of tea.
Also featured are French philosopher Andre Glucksmann and the murdered Russian journalist Anna Politovskaya, but the key interviewee is Litvinenko himself - later seen immediately before his death in a hospital bed. The film's final moments cover Litvinenko's interest in Islam, and his ambition to reconcile Islam and Christianity.
However, Nekrasov never quite manages to paint a portrait of his subject as a personality, while the dense onslaught of data and accusations - hard to substantiate in a documentary of this kind - means that, while painting a horrific picture of contemporary Russian politics, the film is likely to leave the viewer perplexed.
But as a provocation, and a spur to further media discussions, the film demands to be viewed, albeit with a degree of critical scepticism.