A documentary detailing the irregularities marring the run-up to next year’s Sochi Olympics premieres in Russia this week, in defiance of what its makers say were attempts by Moscow authorities to block the film.
«Putin’s Games» offers a rare glimpse into the pervasive corruption, rights abuses, and environmental damage that critics say has pervaded the Black Sea resort as Russia scrambles to prepare it for the Winter Games in February 2014.
Producer Simone Baumann says she was approached on three occasions by Russians proposing to buy the controversial film. Baumann, who has refused to enter into negotiations, claims to have turned down lucrative offers not to show the film.
«I was not surprised by these requests,» Baumann says. «I spend a lot of time in Russia and the notion that money buys everything infuriates me.»
«Putin’s Games,» a co-production between Germany, Austria, and Israel, premiered on November 23 at Amsterdam’s prestigious International Documentary Film Festival. It will be screened to a Russian audience on December 6 at Moscow’s ArtDocFest festival.
Bauman and Tel Aviv-based director Aleksandr Gentelev spent two years researching and filming «Putin’s Games.» The result is an epic account of life in pre-Olympic Sochi, with all the infrastructural, rights, and environmental problems surrounding Russia’s bid to host the event.
WATCH: This is a 17-minute excerpt from «Putin’s Games,» used by permission of the author, Aleksandr Gentelev.
‘You Will Be Soaked In Blood’
The film features Valery Morozov, a Russian construction magnate who fled the country with his family after denouncing routine bribery and intimidation by officials overseeing Sochi’s giant building site. Topping $50 billion in state and private investment, the Sochi Games will be by far the most expensive Olympics in history.
Morozov says Russian officials asked him for kickbacks that went as high as 50 percent of construction costs. The contracting firms that refuse to cough up the cash, he claims, face chilling threats.
«We received explicit threats: »You will be soaked in blood, you will drown in blood,’ etc. The hints were very straightforward,» Morozov says. «We know the story. Russia generally doesn’t care much for human life.»
Riled by the massive bribe-taking that threatened to bankrupt his business, Morozov chose to testify against officials who had attempted to extort him. He eventually fled to London in December 2011 after the Russian authorities launched a major tax investigation into his business in what he describes as retaliation.
‘Truly A Disaster For Us’
«Putin’s Games» also highlights the environmental damage resulting from unbridled construction in and around Sochi.
One of the biggest concerns are the vast landfills that dot the city despite Russia’s «zero waste» Olympic pledge and that, according to ecologists, could be contaminating Sochi’s water supplies.
Konstantin Tsybko, chairman of the pan-Russian nature conservation society, told the filmmakers: «It’s a catastrophic situation, it’s impossible to live there. We’ve had a look, it’s simply impossible to live within 2 kilometers of these landfills. But there are homes there, people have been living there historically.»
Aleksei Kravets rummages through belongings he saved from his house after being forcibly evicted in the course of construction work ahead of the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi.
Disgruntled Sochi residents feature prominently in «Putin’s Games.» There’s the motorist venting his anger at building companies for causing hellish road traffic as well as daily water and electricity cuts in his apartment building.
Then there’s Roman Rebenko, evicted from his house and cheated out of the new flat promised by authorities in return. Rebenko and his family of nine, which includes small children, now share cramped quarters with a toilet in the backyard and no hot water.
«The Olympics are truly a disaster for us. Before, we lived in our own house, I didn’t need anything from the government or from the authorities. I didn’t ask anyone for anything,» Rebenko says. «Now, my life — and the life of my family — is completely ruined.»
‘Not Anti-Russian Film’
«Putin’s Games» questions the wisdom of holding a winter sporting event in a subtropical resort with little snow and unstable, swampy ground. It also touches on Russia’s aggressive lobbying campaign to be awarded the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Karl Schranz, a former Austrian Olympic skiing champion and adviser to President Vladimir Putin on Russia’s Olympic candidacy, recalls the vast sums that went into lobbying for Sochi against Salzburg.
While the film includes comments from Sochi Mayor Anatoly Pakhomov, no officials from the presidential administration, government ministries, or Olympstroi, the state company building most Olympic venues in Sochi, agreed to be interviewed.
Despite its bleak portrait of Olympic Sochi, Baumann insists her film is not directed against Russia. «They think that we’re up to God knows what, maybe some kind of propaganda against the Olympics or an anti-Russian film. That’s what they immediately think,» she says. «This was absolutely not the goal of our project. I don’t consider the film anti-Russian, we tried to listen to all the viewpoints.»
«Putin’s Games» has nonetheless incurred the wrath of the International Olympic Committee. Slamming the film as «politically motivated,» Olympic officials have barred its makers from either tapping into archival footage or using the word «Olympic» in the title.