In the heart of demonstration

Director: Nina Guseva
Country: Russia

In The Case, Nina Guseva, a graduate of the workshop of acclaimed Russian documentary filmmaker Marina Razbezhkina, goes to the very heart of the legal nihilism created during the long rule of Vladimir Putin.

Structured around the story of charismatic lawyer Maria Eismont, who defends the predominantly young people arrested on numerous protests against the democratic deficit increasingly evident in Russia, The Case is a film with a strong backbone, benefiting from its heroine Eismont, and hero Konstantin Kotov, a social activist, arrested who was sentenced to four years in prison after being arrested at an anti-Putin demonstration in the centre of Moscow in the summer of 2019.

The Case, a film by Nina Guseva
The Case, a film by Nina Guseva

Moral compass

Eismont and Kotov are characters with crystal clear moral compasses: they are both passionate about allowing Russia – as Eismont observes, a country of many intelligent and responsible people – the democratic freedom to permit it to truly flourish for all, not just for a tiny minority that is close to the inner circles of the Kremlin.

The film opens on the very frontlines of protest, the camera (operated by Guseva herself) in the thick of the crowd on a protest declared illegal as helmeted riot police push in, wielding long rubber truncheons against defenceless people when they don’t get their way.

«We are unarmed!» the protestors chant, referencing Article 31 of the Russian Constitution that specifically permits peaceful protest. The crowd switches to «Pozor!» (Shame) as the black-uniformed thugs wade in.

The crowd switches to «Pozor!» (Shame) as the black-uniformed thugs wade in.

The mass protests – in and around Tverskaya ulitsa (formerly Gorky Street) Moscow’s fashionable central shopping avenue – that centre on demands for fair elections had been declared illegal by authorities. More than 2,700 people were arrested and hundreds injured.

Konstantin – known as Kostya – Kotov, escaped arrest at that demonstration but was picked up at the next, in mid-August. Drone footage obtained by Eismont showed that he was doing nothing other than walk across a small square, carrying a backpack with some rolled-up posters (that included such incendiary slogans as «For Fair Elections!») when he was seized by police, giving the lie to claims in the prosecution case that he was part of a column of 150 slogan-shouting protestors.

The Case, a film by Nina Guseva
The Case, a film by Nina Guseva

Article 212.1

Most demonstrators at protests of this kind in Russia are brought before a judge and sentenced to an «administrative» punishment – usually a fine or 15 days’ detention. In Kotov’s case, a little-used law introduced a few years ago, Article 212.1, known as «Dadin’s Article» after the first person tried under it, increases the penalty to those available under the harsher criminal code. Kotov’s «offence» was to repeatedly «break the law» by attending numerous anti-government and pro-democracy protests.

Initially held for two nights in a police cell, Kotov was transferred to Moscow’s infamous Matrosskaya Tishina (Sailor’s Silence) prison to be held on remand for two months before his trial. A quietly strong and courageous character, Kotov did not let this get in the way of marrying his sweetheart, whom Eismont arranged to be wed inside the prison. The scene where she turns up at the entrance to the jail, in full bridal gear, is a moment of joy in a film of dark twists and turns.

Kotov’s «offence» was to repeatedly «break the law» by attending numerous anti-government and pro-democracy protests.

Unsurprisingly, Eismont’s attempt to prove Kotov’s innocent and achieve an acquittal – at a trial in which she was given just a couple of days to examine four massive tomes of «evidence» against him – is doomed to failure. He is sentenced to four years, prompting outrage and pandemonium in a Moscow district court packed with his supporters.

Kotov takes it all with the calm stoicism, and Eismont, a feisty former journalist – talking outside at an impromptu press conference – announces she will appeal.

The Case, a film by Nina Guseva
The Case, a film by Nina Guseva

Deeper. Darker

Although structured around the seasons and spanning the pre-pandemic times of late 2019 through the first year of the global viral plague, it is here that The Case really enters its second act, as it becomes less of a story about a lawyer and her client fighting an unfair conviction, and more a deeper, much darker story of the extent to which justice no longer works in Russia; the degree to which everything is determined by the puppet masters of a system run by Vladimir Putin.

As Eismont prepares the appeal and goes on opposition-supporting TV Rain (recently declared a foreign agent under new Russian laws) to publicise Kotov’s case, Putin appears on national television at his annual press conference. As he leaves at the end, a TV Rain journalist shouts a question about Kotov’s case, and Putin promises to look into it.

Nearly a year later, when Eismont has exhausted a couple more appeals – albeit finally achieving a reduction in sentence to 18 months, which Kotov serves in a grim provincial jail 120 kilometres from Moscow – the young activist is released.

Eismont takes little joy in his release – which coincides with the time served – noting that «we are dealing with a serious enemy, the court system is deeply compromised» – and in the closing scenes of the film, we see her at yet another police station on a dark winter’s night in Moscow arguing that she is entitled to enter to talk to several clients arrested that day at yet another unsanctioned pro-democracy protest.

‘The Case’ screens its world premiere as part of the IDFA Frontlight programme

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Nick Holdsworth
Nick Holdsworth
Our regular critic. Journalist, writer, author. Works mostly from Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.

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