Boris Ivanov’s searing documentary exposes the collateral damage left in the wake of the Russian political game.
The 1990s were a troubling time for Russia. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the vast country had seemingly transformed overnight from a worldwide superpower to an economically struggling nation. What was once a country whose power was only rivaled by the United States had now been reduced to its lowest common denominator. For quite a while, it seemed possible that Russia was poised to enter the ranks of Western European countries–free, democratic, capitalistic, and internationally cooperative. But alas, that would not be the case.
After nearly a decade of mismanagement, cronyism, and corruption, Russia’s populace felt desperate, alone, and most harrowingly, destitute. It was an unrecognizable state of affairs, one that people finally felt safe to say—after all, no one dared speak out or reflect on daily life during the Soviet Union lest you be whisked away in a black Volga limousine to a Gulag in a god forsaken Siberia forest. Whether it was the gas fields that were sold at laughable rates to higher-up chums or the skyrocketing of black market goods and prices, Russian life had grown sordid and difficult. Indeed, as one woman states, “it’s difficult to say anything because life is unbearable.” Cue the rise of Putin and an ideology that Russia and its people recognize and adore: strong arm politics.
There’s a downside to that political approach—there always needs to be some sort of lackey. Whether it’s marginalized individuals who are already persecuted or foreign powers that can easily be blamed for domestic issues, there is always someone to blame for the problems of a country. It’s an approach that is as old as the political machine itself. And it’s one that Putin has used to a shockingly successful degree, with Russia’s independent polling center Levada putting him in at an astounding 81 percent in November 2017. And with the March elections just around the corner, it seems that Putin will yet again win a landslide victory.
Boris Ivanov’s On Putin’s Blacklist takes time examine the individuals who fall by the wayside of Putin’s nationalistic rhetoric. A deeply searing humanistic documentary, Ivanov pays attention to two particular groups that have been especially hard hit by Putin—LGBTQ individuals and orphaned children. It sounds more like a folk tale about wicked king, but alas it’s a reality that many people are being forced to endure. From the incessant harassment from Federal Security Service agents to the “iron curtain of propaganda” as one aide refers to it, Russia has slowly but successfully began squeezing out individuals they deem to be “undesirable.”
It’s a sad state of affairs that points to the fact that society has not progressed to the degree that we sometimes naively believe that it has. Regardless of the fact that this is occuring in Russia, it still stands for how we as mankind still hold onto archaic approaches to overcoming differences, issues, and problems. But perhaps the saddest part of this entire crusade is that it is being perpetrated against groups of people who have no hope of fighting back or even minutely defending themselves. Like a bully, Russia preys on individuals who are easy to pick on and seldom can fight back.
But while Ivanov does an excellent job of drumming up affect in the face of unsettling heartbreak, the filmmaker is not as successful at maintaining a steady pace that is cohesive and well-structured. The documentary frequently jumps between one storyline and another, oscillating between the crusade against LGBTQ groups and the ban on foreign adoptions, which seldom works to paint a clearer picture of the issues gripping Russia’s civil society. The documentary would have benefited from a more natural pace, one in which the viewer is trained to focus their attention on one marginalized group of individuals and then pivoted his focus slowly and naturally toward another.
Nonetheless, Ivanov does a stellar job of concocting a gripping documentary that points to the gross injustice that is overtaking much of Russia’s underlying social groups. It’s a depressing exposé, one that will surely only get worse before it gets better. It seems that unless more moralistically-minded Duma members like Ilya Ponomarev begin filling the halls of the legislative body and even the Kremlin, Russia will continue to disenfranchise “unsavory” individuals as a means of pushing its nationalistic, Russia-first, rhetoric.
Catch On Putin’s Blacklist once it hits VOD services on March 13.