Documentarian Vitaly Mansky is no stranger to making films rooted around authoritarian political regimes. His 2015 feature Under the Sun, which explores life in North Korea, caused a stir among that nation’s government after painting their regime in an honest and unflattering light. For his latest effort, Putin’s Witnesses, Mansky has returned to his homeland to investigate a tyrannical figure he knows first hand.
Mansky has been chronicling Vladimir Putin since the inception of his rise to power at the turn of the century. And when it comes to those who’ve been able to get up close and personal with the Russian president, Mansky boasts some impressive credentials. After Putin inherited the position from his predecessor Boris Yeltsin in 1999, Mansky was hired to follow him around and make a documentary that would boost his image among the nation’s voters. Putin’s Witnesses is solely comprised of archival footage that Mansky shot for that original documentary. On top of that, the film also has some home video footage that was shot when Yeltsin revealed that he was stepping down from his position.
It’s hard to imagine Putin in a humanized light, but some of the film’s most fascinating scenes accomplish this. In one of the doc’s more intimate moments, Putin is reunited with his old teacher and they share a glass of wine together, but you can tell there’s an agenda behind it. This was done to boost Putin’s political campaign at the time and present him as a hero of the people. How he managed to convince them, I’ll never know. Throughout the reunion, he’s withdrawn and disengaged, and despite her hospitality and smiles, his old teacher doesn’t seem overjoyed to see him either.
Another intriguing scene features Putin telling Mansky that one day he expects to live a normal life as a citizen. Here, he also highlights the importance of the decisions he’ll make as president because they’ll affect him as a citizen when his tenure is over. Once again, you can tell that Putin was trying to come across as a man who empathizes with the people as he was still courting their support before a national election. At the same time, you can’t help but wonder if Putin was being sincere to an extent. Does he actually envision himself living normally someday? He’s very difficult to read and still comes across as elusive during his most outward moments. If you already imagine Putin as this cold and mysterious personality, this documentary will likely confirm your predispositions.
Putin’s Witnesses isn’t a pleasant documentary either. For a start, the score, which was composed by Karlis Auzans (Under the Sun), wouldn’t sound out of place in a horror film. When you couple this with Mansky’s moody voiceover pinpointing events which paved the way for tyranny, it makes for one eerie experience. The very first scene establishes a dour tone that doesn’t change throughout. Furthermore, Mansky is an ambiguous storyteller who expects viewers to put some pieces together for themselves.
Despite some ambiguity, though, Putin’s Witnesses doesn’t tell us anything new about the dictator. If you’re familiar with his backstory then the film works best as a political cautionary tale. There is also a lack of desire to contextualize the effect Putin’s reign has had on the present day, which might not appeal to viewers who aren’t familiar with the current political climate in Russia. That being said, Mansky’s latest is still a fascinating snapshot of a period that birthed one of the most controversial presidencies in global politics. For that reason alone, the doc is well worth your time.