A sense of dread and urgency hangs over Anna Shishova’s nail-biting The New Greatness Case, which won the IDFA Forum Award for Best Rough Cut last November and is set to world premiere at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in NYC (May 20-26). And that includes the doc’s production along with its storyline. The cut I saw the week before the film’s debut (with temp music and VO) appeared more than ready for primetime but was also a sign of the high stakes at play. With the recent invasion of Ukraine, the tale of Anya, an ordinary teenage girl in Moscow before she was abruptly arrested and jailed for attempting to bring down the Putin regime, is as terrifyingly timely as it is patently ridiculous. Add to this the fact that the Russian director and her cinematic story are now a bit too close for comfort, as Shishova-Bogolubova initially met her protagonists while making a video for the Russian human rights organization Memorial – closed and liquidated just last month. The noose is tightening for all of Russia, to say the least.
Indeed, in retrospect, Anya’s Kafkaesque experience actually reads like an omen for her country. An innocuous scene of the girl’s bird-loving mother and father tending to their caged pets becomes a prescient metaphor; parents preparing for a daughter’s return under house arrest. Though caring for a canary in a coal mine certainly takes its toll, as does trying to figure out how «New Greatness» – a dubious clandestine organization set up to overthrow the government that Anya accidentally joined – even began in the first place. Or whether it exists at all. In fact, Anya and her group of social media-introduced young friends – all facing harsh sentences – seem as surprised as anyone that they’d joined a supposed terrorist group. Sure, the kids longed for a Putin-less future for themselves but seemed even more enthusiastic to discuss matters of music or ecology. (Anya, who volunteered at a veterinary clinic, even had now-derailed university plans.)
That is, until a mysterious figure with a name straight out of a Cold War spy novel – «Ruslan D» – set foot on the scene. The oddly politics-obsessed stranger suggested renting a flat so that they could all meet up in person to hang out and chat. One thing led to another, and soon the older «Ruslan D» had put himself in charge, dispensing manifestos to agree upon, teaching proper techniques for building and throwing Molotov cocktails. The proverbial bomb under the table was set to go off, hidden cameras capturing it all. And the collateral damage, especially to the last shreds of the «justice» system, would reverberate throughout the land.
Felt most acutely by those in Anya’s direct orbit, of course. Starting with her mother, Julia, who, over the three-year-long ordeal, is painfully and utterly transformed, emotionally and physically. Pointedly opening with smartphone footage of Anya and her fun-loving mom playing a game that requires the donning of silly pickup contraptions on their heads, the doc slowly unfolds to reveal a woman in the process of incremental deterioration; who by the end has become a hunger-striking political activist. Though admittedly, her evolution is also due in no small part to a human-rights advocate named Kostya, who takes up Anya’s cause. And is ultimately jailed for it. (Though the two political prisoners fall in love and receive permission to marry while he’s behind bars. A crumb of benevolence tossed by a press-prickly Kremlin, at the time still subject to demonstrations, albeit highly controlled ones.)
The playbook spreads
Which isn’t to say Putin himself ordered what becomes increasingly apparent was a wholly intelligence-manufactured operation – sussed out by the courageous journalist Vasily Polonsky (currently busy dodging bullets in Ukraine), who signs on to investigate New Greatness for the family and film team. (With receipts from the rental of the flat and images from a computer programmers conference, Polonsky is even able to learn the true identity of «Ruslan D.») Indeed, in perhaps the most surreal scene of the film – a «Human Rights Commission» meeting at the gilded Kremlin – a member brings up the case directly to Putin (or rather, to his «highness,» as the older gentleman addresses the president presiding over the sham proceedings). Putin actually seems a bit befuddled, agreeing to look into whether this was, in fact, a government sting operation designed to entrap innocent civilians.
Whether he ever did so remains unclear (though «Ruslan D» still seems to have a job). What we do know is that forced confessions were obtained and multiyear incarcerations (and house arrests) doled out to all the defendants; culminating in a final jarring courtroom scene made all the more horror-film shocking for what it doesn’t show. As in the case itself (and likely in many more, as the New Greatness playbook seems to be spreading like wildfire in today’s Russia), the audio says it all. Speaking truth to unchecked power is the last means of protest.