By David D’Arcy
In the annals of Russian repression, The New Greatness Case was a display of government overkill — until the events of this year redefined overkill.
Russian forces are struggling to seize and control territory in eastern Ukraine, but when it comes to Russian courts trying the regime’s critics, the state always wins.
That brutal fact is confirmed by the documentary The New Greatness Case, which premiered at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York. It plays later this month at England’s Sheffield Film Festival.
Anna Shishova, 36, has now relocated to Israel, and her documentary follows the prosecution in 2018 of a small group of activists in Moscow, who are convicted of crimes against the state on the basis of secret police videotapes.
The audience watches the alleged conspiracy take shape, as 10 young (very young) opponents of the Putin regime are guided by three agents into denouncing the government and Vladimir Putin and then trained in making and throwing Molotov cocktails inside an abandoned building. The sessions, mostly held in small rooms, are taped by surveillance cameras. For the activists, this meant prison terms.
The person from that group whom Shishova follows most closely is young Anna Poriskova, then 17, who is found guilty and imprisoned for a sentence of more than three years after a pro forma trial. We watch a judge whisper the verdict, making no effort to be heard. Anna’s parents risk prosecution by protesting persistently and publicly on her behalf. Eventually, the court releases her on an extremely restricted house arrest, where she remains today — banned from using the telephone or internet. And she got off easy.
The New Greatness Case, the story of the entrapment of a few teenagers, follows in the footsteps of 2011’s Khodorkovsky, which examined the jailing and eventual freeing of a billionaire oil oligarch who challenged Putin’s authority, and 2022’s Navalny, which chronicled the near-death from poisoning and later imprisonment of a popular dissident leader. Shishova’s exposé delivers the thudding impact of reality — it shows the thick knot of severity, brutality, and dishonesty administered in Russian courts. Brutal indeed. One of Anna’s co-defendants confesses in court without emotion after at least one beating, probably after many, with bruises and cuts on his face. The young man’s lawyers claim that the shaft of a mallet was shoved up his client’s anus, who say torture is a regular police tactic. Relatives of prisoners say that defendants were shown a broomstick with a condom at one end to induce them to talk.
In the enclosure where defendants on trial sit, we see Anna losing control of her twitching hands. Once in prison, she says, “after six months you stop being normal, because of the kind of life you live there.” Besides the judge’s sotto voce announcement of sentences, that is one of the rare moments of understatement in a grim film that shows us repressive business as usual in Moscow. Protesters are punished with stiff prison time (stiffer, activists say, since the war began), and journalists who document the process end up silenced, sometimes dead.
Still, for a film built on surveillance footage, plenty of drama lies beyond the leaden workings of oppression. Along with the plight of the victims and the film’s bare-boned aesthetic (if aesthetic is the right word for a stationary police camera), we get an update on Kafka with outtakes from someone’s vision of Alice in Wonderland.
There are a number of odd twists and surprises in a film with a foregone conclusion of punishment and persecution. At times, The New Greatness Case can seem scripted, or just haunted. The agents in the police videos are spectral presences — although they are real enough for a computer geek who supports the defendants to place one of them at an event that took place a decade earlier. When Anna, twitching in court with the empty gaze of a bird, is convicted and locked up, her mother goes on a hunger strike, becoming the dissident that her imprisoned daughter can no longer be. That’s about as public as a protest in Russia can get; she ends her fast when her health begins to fail. Anna does return to prison, in a wedding dress, but only long enough to marry a friend who’s there for, among other things, protesting publicly with Anna’s mother. I thought of Michail Bulgakov’s great novel The Master and Margarita.
The surreal flourishes are not always explained. Why would the FSB (formerly KGB) have let the mother’s hunger strike go on for so long? Russians are punished for doing much less than that. And why was Shishova allowed to use the police surveillance footage in her film? The official answer is that the video footage is public because it is evidence, available to the prosecution and the defense.
The video evidence reminds us of what we have become accustomed to seeing in this country from police body cameras — when they are turned on, that is. American films have also been built around secret surveillance footage. For example, in Kate Davis and David Heilbroner’s The Newburgh Sting (2014, HBO), a Pakistani businessman working for the FBI (with his own shady history) draws four Black Muslims recruited into a plot to bomb synagogues. Cameras documenting the terrorist plan in the agent’s car and home track an entrapment operation filled with moments that seem lifted from spy farces. It would all be unbelievable if the cameras weren’t there to document it. If Adam Sandler hasn’t bought the remake rights, he should.
Luc Côté and Patricio Henriquez’s 2010 Canadian documentary You Don’t Like the Truth: Four Days Inside Guantanamo also has a prison surveillance video at its center. We see interrogations of a young Canadian-born prisoner captured in Pakistan conducted by a Canadian team (working with the CIA). The hope is that the boy might offer incriminating information to Canadians who pretend to befriend him. The footage was declassified by Canadian authorities.
In Moscow, the trials of Pavlikova and her peers were covered by media in and beyond Russia, before Covid struck and before Russia invaded Ukraine. The New Greatness Case was a display, meant to be seen by the public, of government overkill — until the events of this year redefined overkill. Now, with nonofficial media silenced in Russia, we’re at the point where independent filmmakers in Russia will have to make their own secret videotapes.
Before the Human Rights Watch Film Festival played in New York, I learned that Anna Shishova and her family had relocated to Israel. She and I spoke by phone when the film premiered.
The Arts Fuse: What came first? Was it the idea to make a film, or was it the access to videotapes made secretly by the police?
Anna Shishova: It was the idea. In the beginning, even before we knew about this case, it was a personal fear about the future. That’s what made us decide to make a film like this, how we lost this freedom. We knew about the case and we were extremely lucky to get this unique footage, and everything fell into place.
AF: Given that the legal rights of so many people in Russia are violated, it seemed unusual that these tapes, which were irrefutable evidence, would be made available to the defense. Can you explain how and why that happened?
Shishova: This footage was part of the evidence, and it was available to the defense team. That’s why we got it, because we worked together. For the prosecution, this footage was the evidence that the defendants were guilty. If a person says, “I don’t like Putin and I want to put him in jail,” for the prosecution it means that this person is automatically guilty of planning to overthrow the government. This is a ridiculous Kafkaesque world, where things like this can become signs of guilt.
For normal people, when you see this footage, you see that these guys are not guilty, but for people who are inside this system, this is proof of their guilt.
For 10 or 20 years, the legal system in Russia has drifted in a totalitarian direction. We have many new laws. One of those laws says that if you say something bad against authority, you can be put in jail. Another law punishes extremist organizations, which means you are guilty if you say something against authority within a group.
AF: How did The New Greatness Case take shape? At the beginning, it would have been very inexpensive to interview the various people involved, and to be there in the courtroom and in the hallways during the trial. You wouldn’t have needed a big budget to begin the film.
Shishova: This is correct.
In Moscow, and in other big cities, we have a community of very brave people who are devoted in their struggle against the Putin regime. These are not just human rights activists, these are members of our crew. This is not the kind of documentary where you can hesitate. Our DP, and me and my husband [Dmitry Bogolyubov], we worked for very long periods without any money.
AF: Once the authorities became aware of what you were doing, and the possible implications of what you were doing, or their sense of those implications, did they try to interfere with the film or keep you from completing it?
Shishova: Actually, we were very lucky. This trial was covered by the Russian press, and there were many articles in European and American media. While we were filming I think our security services thought that we were just one of the many journalists who were reporting the story. It was kind of a different time. Now things have changed, and this kind of filming will now immediately be in the sights of the secret service.
We had several shooting locations where we were followed. You can never know anything. We still don’t know if we are on a special list of dangerous people, or if we are followed or not. These are things that you can never predict until you get a special signal or something. Until now, we have not had problems, just a few times when we realized that we were being followed, that these guys were not just ordinary guys, but people from secret services.
AF: Would you assume now that every opposition group in Russia is infiltrated?
Shishova: Very hard to say, almost impossible to say. That’s why in the film we made a parallel with the Stalinist period. What is happening today is not the same, but it is close. There are many people who cooperate with the secret service for some payment. Or someone is caught doing something wrong, and that’s why he begins to cooperate with the secret service. This kind of manipulation is very common.
AF: The surveillance footage is at the core of your film. Is there an earlier documentary that influenced you, where footage like this served as the basis for a story or an investigation?
Shishova: This might sound strange to you, but I was inspired by the film The Shining with Jack Nicholson. For me, the hotel in the film has a very symbolic meaning. It is a really scary place, a trap. Innocent people enter this scary place, and they’re in the trap. This idea was central for me: I wanted to show a place where you enter and everything changes for you, where there is no escape or you go through some hard challenges and your life will never be the same again. For me, this office [observed by cameras in my film] takes on a symbolic meaning — the lives of these people were completely changed, and they will never be the same after this.
AF: Back to the look of The New Greatness Case. When you have something that is as essential to your film as the police surveillance footage — with its visual limitations and its dramatic implications — how does that shape your film? Does this dictate the form as well as the content?
Shishova: I like to find something symbolic in very ordinary images. There is even some evil beauty in this footage, and that is very interesting for me, from an artistic point of view. When you discover something symbolic and scary and beautiful in very common things – like this table and this chair and this very ordinary guy [police agent Ruslan D. ].
AF: You’re in Israel now. When did you decide to leave Russia, and why?
Shishova: We decided to leave Russia actually about six years ago, when me and my husband — also a filmmaker — were doing our previous project, Town of Glory, a film about military propaganda in small provincial towns in Russia. We can see the results of that propaganda in the war that is going on. When we started to film that project, we realized that we were starting to do some really dangerous things.
I’m half-Jewish, my mother is Jewish, and we realized that we needed some place to escape when things became dangerous. So we got Israeli passports and citizenship. Then we waited until it became totally impossible to stay in Russia anymore. The war started before we finished The New Greatness Case, but we realized that, as soon as the film was released, we would be in real danger. And then we left.
We have a small daughter, she’s four years old, and every day we lived with threats and worries. We couldn’t avoid the propaganda — now it’s in kindergarten, even in schools. We wanted a better future for our daughter. We wanted to express our antiwar position openly. Now we have a new law in Russia where, if you say that the war is the war, or if you write on Facebook, “stop this war,” the police can come to your house and you can be put in prison for 15 years. That’s why we didn’t have any choice.
David D’Arcy lives in New York. For years, he was a programmer for the Haifa International Film Festival in Israel. He writes about art for many publications, including the Art Newspaper. He produced and co-wrote the documentary Portrait of Wally (2012), about the fight over a Nazi-looted painting found at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.