This documentary received an enormous amount of attention – prior to anyone even watching it. But which is the hidden reality?

Sigurd Lydersen
A freelance writer on Russian politics in Norway.

The film collaboration between Russian film, TV and theatre producer Andrej Nekrasov and Norwegian Piraya Films, The Magnitsky Act – Behind the Scenes, received a lot of media attention. Not least due to the fact that one of the main characters, US billionaire Bill Browder, has fought tooth and nail to stop all screening of the film. A planned screening at The European Parliament was halted, and the Grimstad’s Norwegian Short Film Festival decided not to show it, as Browder obtained a court injunction against it at Oslo city court. Despite Browder’s resistance, the film previewed to especially invited guests in Washington, and June 25th saw its world premiere at Oslo’s Cinemateket – followed by a lively discussion. The film is now considered showed on NRK, whilst French and German TV-stations cancelled their screenings. The lawyer fees can be added to the film’s marketing budget.

I have rarely seen a film gather such amounts of curiosity. I want to know what Bill Browder is trying to hide.

Andrej Nekrasov. Photo: Truls Lie

Died in prison. In the 1980s, Andrej Nekrasov (b. 1958) worked, among others, alongside the legendary Soviet film maker Andrej Tarkovsky, and was central in several prize-winning projects within film and TV. His Rebellion: The Litvinenko Case (2007) depicted the killing of the fallen FSB-agent Aleksandr Litvinenko and his revelations surrounding the FSB’s bombing of Russian blocks of flats in 1999.

Nekrasov fled to Norway in 2011, where Haugesund welcomed him as a City of Asylum writer, and he remained ever since. The 2009 documentary on Russian-Georgian war in 2008, Russian Lessons, became the start of a collaboration with Piraya’s Torstein Grude.

The two and a half hour-long Andrej Nekrasov depicts the circumstances surrounding the death of Sergej Magnitskij in a Russian prison on 16. November 2009.

The 14. December 2012, Barack Obama signed off a law entitled the «Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act». This law implies a ban against 18 named Russians to enter the USA, these are presumed involved in the death of Bill Browder’s Russian lawyer Sergej Magnitskij. According to Browder, Magnitskij was arrested, tortured, and in the end, killed in a Russian prison as he was attempting to clear up in the thefts and misuse of Browder’s companies, of which no one was ever convicted in Russia. Instead, the involved enriched themselves and received promotions, claims Browder. The theft was, according to Browder, used to stage a historically large tax evasion to the tune of 230 million dollar, paid in tax by Browder’s companies to the Russian state.

At a fringe event at this May’s Oslo Freedom Forum organised by the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, Browder explained his strong involvement with this law in the USA, and his work to work to make it into an International campaign to catch criminals inside countries when people exiled are unable to legally prosecute these. In an opinion article dated June 7th, in the Dagbladet newspaper, Browder wrote that he thinks this film should be stopped because it violates the memory of Magnitskij. He pointed out that five Russian documentaries were produced and screened on Russian TV as a Russian anti-campaign to underpin the Government’s version. The Helsinki committee is now sitting on a 50-page account in which Browder attacks what he considers to be lies in the film. It states that Andrej Nekrasov’s version has not only been hammered in by Russian state-governed media, but also evident in the US legal system – by solicitor firms representing Russian capital interests, which Browder claims have earnt money on this fraud.

I have rarely seen a film gather such amounts of curiosity. I want to know what Bill Browder is trying to hide.

Photographer Grude recording one of the scenes. © PiRaya

Nothing is true, everything is possible. What is portrayed as Nekrosov’s own surprising discoveries in the film, could instead be an established Russian «propaganda version» dressed up in a credible guise for a Western audience. There is reason to ask whether the Norwegian Film Institute, Fritt Ord Foundation and Piraya are aware of what they are part of. With Piraya photographer Torstein Grude as a witness of truth, Nekrasov plays the part of the critical, exiled documentarist who originally wants to present Browder’s version, but then – almost by accident – singlehandedly understands that the basic conditions of Browder’s version and international campaign are not what they seem: Was Magnitskij really beaten to death in prison by seven men with batons whilst wearing handcuffs? Did really Magnitskij accuse named policemen thereby giving them the motive to neutralise him? Did the Russian policemen really enrich themselves?

Nekrasov embodies the slogan of Russian channel Russia Today – «Question more» – by digging and in, a well-known manner, sows doubt around the documentation and proven truths which contradict the interests of the Russian regime. We recognise it from all the opposing hypotheses introduced to cover up the fact that a Russian BUK-rocket shot down the Malaysian passenger flight over Eastern Ukraine. Did a BUK really cause the cavities in the plane’s hull? Should they not then be facing inwards as opposed to outwards? Every piece of documentation can be countered by conflicting documentation. All arguments can be met by opposing arguments. British TV-producer Peter Pomerantsev, who used to work in Moscow, describes Russia’s current postmodern reality: «Nothing is true. Everything is possible.»

Sympathetic character. The Magnitsky Act – Behind the Scenes starts off as a film, becomes a film about the film, and ends up as a film about the film’s reception. Browder’s resistance is central – it is thematised and made suspicious through words, images and sounds – and add credibility to the portrayal. Why does Browder not reply to the documentarists’ numerous attempts to contact him? And why are his answers so evasive and affected by a sudden memory loss during a critical US hearing? And does not Nekrasov embarrass the Western establishment as they admit to having used Browder’s translated version in front of the European Council and US Congress instead of going through the Russian documentation themselves?

As Browder and the Western establishment’s credibility is picked to pieces, we get the alternative version of events by the Russian regime and Nekrasov: Browder, assisted by Magnitskij himself, staged the «theft» of his own companies, to enrich himself from the tax evasion and blame the Russian authorities. Magnitskij was no whistle blower, but was himself called in for questioning of their own crimes. This version is reinforced by interviews with Russian civil service staff in Russia, who Browder accuses of the crime, and who explains what really happened.

Putin-refugee Nekrasov with his curly hair, slight underbite and somewhat despairing, thoughtful attitude is a character it is easy to sympathise and identify with. This identification factor is the film’s nerve, and Nekrasov’s voiceover, person and perspective take centre stage. Although I inhibit the assumptions of being positive to Browder’s version, I allow myself to be affected and feel that I am put into the same state of doubt supposedly driving Nekrasov.

Creating doubt. As a favouritism of Russian authorities’ propaganda directed at a Western audience it could be deemed very successful. But it makes me want to – like Nekrasov – scrutiny the case on my own:

A Google-search takes me to a 2012 documentary, by the Dutch Hans Hermans and Martin Maat, which is freely available online [just click on the titles]. The film Our Friend Putin depicts the control exerted the by the Putin-regime over Gasprom and Russian oil and gas resources. Bill Browder is interviewed, not only as the largest foreign investor in the Russian market, but also as an activist for shareholders’ rights. He earnt a lot of money on his business idea of tidying up in Russian companies and making them profitable. Through his active ownership in Gasprom, Browder was in the way of the Putin-regime’s ambitions, and became in 2005 a persona non grata in Russia, supposedly a threat to the country’s interests.

Their second documentary, Justice for Sergey, follows on from their first, and scrutinises the Magnitskij-affair further as an example of how the Putin-regime has developed. We meet family, friends and colleagues of the deceased Magnitskij, and are introduced to the story about a lawyer who defies Browder’s advice to leave Russia for his own safety. He elected to be a patriot and fight the regime – with deadly outcome. The same patriotic decision as oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovskij took when he allowed himself to be arrested instead of escaping.

Nekrasov’s portrayal boils down to discrediting – shortsighted and zealous – whether Magnitskij’s death was due to violence or «only» because he did not receive the medical treatment he needed.

That the Putin-regime, after getting rid of the annoying Browder, attacked his companies and their hidden values (as they have done with all independent capital), seems likely. That the share-activist and corruption-fighter Browder, from his forced exile, and with the help of Magnitskij, staged a theft of his own companies, and through Russian strawmen, is behind the greatest tax evasion in Russian history, seems far less convincing. Nekrasov and Grude must excuse me, because I have watched the film.

The reasons why Andrej Nekrasov plays the film’s main character himself are interesting. Why does he do this, what drives him, who is this Russian Putin-refugee in Norway? There is scope to investigate here – beyond Magnitskij.

The film is considered to be screened shortly on Norwegian NRK. In addition, it is screened at Stavanger’s Kapittel, Nordic Panorama, Finland’s Love & Anarchy and BIFF in Bergen.