Poisoned by Polonium: The Litvinenko File

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 August, 2008, 12:00am

Poisoned by Polonium: The Litvinenko File

Director: Andrei Nekrasov

The film: Andrei Nekrasov couldn't have anticipated that the DVD release of his new documentary would provide such a timely backgrounder for some of the most avidly discussed international news of the past fortnight. Premiered more than a year before Russia retaliated against westward-looking Georgia in response to its bombardment of South Ossetia, Poisoned by Polonium: The Litvinenko File lifts the lid on the political machinations through which Vladimir Putin has nurtured, consolidated and wielded power.

Nekrasov's film was originally called Rebellion - the term he uses to describe former Russian secret service agent Alexander Litvinenko's efforts to reveal the corruption and criminal activities of the FSB, the successor to the Soviet-era KGB. But the new title is more direct in addressing the plight of Litvinenko (right), who died in self-imposed exile in London in November 2006, three weeks after drinking tea laced with the radioactive element polonium. And 'poisoned' might as well be Nekrasov's description of his home country today, with the rising nationalism and superficial prosperity Putin's leadership has brought to the country in the past eight years.

In the film, Anna Politkovskaya, the journalist who would eventually be assassinated in her own stairwell, describes how the public largely ignore her exposes of widespread human rights abuses by Russian soldiers in Chechnya. Nekrasov is seen scouring Moscow's kiosks for Politkovskaya's paper, Novaya Gazeta, but is unable to find a copy. And then there's the 'crime of indifference' among European leaders in befriending Putin, illustrated with footage of the then Russian president riding in an open-air carriage with Queen Elizabeth, and receiving the Legion d'Honneur from his French counterpart, Jacques Chirac.

But it's Putin's legacy that Nekrasov puts in the dock, and he delivers a nuanced yet powerful 'J'accuse'. Nekrasov draws on a vast pool of material: from the taped interview, in which Litvinenko first blew the whistle on the FSB's criminal activities, to conversations Nekrasov later had with the ex-spy in Britain, to the astonishing footage of Litvinenko being acquitted of trumped-up charges, only for balaclava-clad FSB agents to charge into the courtroom, push him into the toilet and arrest him again.

Widening his scope, Nekrasov probes the many allegations of impropriety levelled at Putin - from serving as a consultant to a money-laundering German company to his part in the disappearance of humanitarian aid being sent to alleviate the Saint Petersburg winter famine of 1991.

Add to that horrendous images of the war in Chechnya and the rise of the Russian far right (nationalism being one of Putin's calling cards), and the picture that emerges is one of a country in crisis, culminating in the extraordinary lengths to which its leaders will go to silence critics. The extras: Two shorter documentaries by Nekrasov are included here, the more important being Disbelief, which blames the bomb attacks on apartment blocks in Russian cities in September 1999 on the FSB rather than Chechen separatists. The film is based on the book Blowing Up Russia, which Litvinenko co-wrote. There's also a piece on Mikhail Trepashkin, a former FSB man and attorney who was jailed after he'd helped a commission set up to investigate those bombings, and who would later blow the whistle on plans for the murder of Litvinenko and his family. The final part comprises additional interviews with Marina, Litvinenko's widow.

The verdict: Poisoned is an explosive documentary, not only because of the content, but also the way in which Nekrasov weaves together interviews, archive footage and first-person investigative scenes. It's a thought-provoking exercise seething with fury.