Oliver Stone's Interviews with Vladimir Putin: a Peace Mission?

Author: Dmitry Paranyushkin (on 29 Jun 2017)

"Interviews with Vladimir Putin" by Oliver Stone is probably the most comprehensive video portrait of Vladimir Putin made by a westerner. The 4-series feature received negative feedback from most of the mainstream western media, including The New York Times and Newsweek. Oliver Stone himself was grilled on TV for being too lax with Putin on many issues that are of concern to the worldwide community. However, most people who criticize Stone for being too "nice" with Putin miss a very important point: the context. Oliver Stone's goal was not to expose the Russian president. Rather, this mission was to make a first step towards truce between Russia and the United States on the political level. 

The way Stone approached his subject was not the same that an investigative journalist would use. Yes, he could have asked about the suppression of Russian opposition, about Navalny, he could have questioned the loose facts, and lavish lifestyle of Russian bureaucrats. What would that change however? Does anyone really believe that Putin would ever change his stance on these issues just because someone asked him about it? Stone would probably be denied further access and even if it was not the case he'd end up with a very stereotypical portrait of the vilified Russian leader that we've seen almost too many times.

Oliver Stone seems to have a mission . The way he carefully phrases his questions, the way he does not pursue further, the way he shows that there is a different point of view in the US and that not all the Americans see Russia as an enemy indicates that. His task is not to open the eyes of the Russian president to discrepancies that he's probably very well aware of. His task is to show to the Russian president that there are people out there who don't share the consensus that Russian state, in political sense, is an enemy. That Putin is a dictator. That Russia wants to take over US and the rest of the world. Stone's function in the making of his documentary is to change opinion of his subject in the "soft way" of Judo – the same approach that Putin is talking in the first episode of the film. "It's sometimes OK to lose, to let go here and there, in order to win after". This is what Stone does very skillfully: at the expense of his own reputation he loses as a documentary-maker and a journalist, but wins as a peace-maker. Showing a more humane picture of the Russian president to the world he attempts to open a door for a dialogue. Showing a more humane picture of American public to the Russian president, in numerous personal exchanges, he makes it much more likely that Putin himself would do the first moves towards that dialogue.

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Stone's function is not to reveal "the real" Putin to his viewers; instead he (perhaps inadvertently) attempts to take Putin out of his bubble, to show to his subject that the world around may be different than what it appears to be. The fact that there is a bubble is undeniable: it was avidly demonstrated in the scene where Putin shows Stone the footage of a Russian military operation in Syria, which turns out to be a re-edited footage of US operations in Afghanistan. The most striking part of this scene that Putin, who is known to not use the internet, shows the footage from an iPhone screen. Which brought some bloggers to believe that the Russian president exists in a kind of informational field reminiscent of the North Korean internet: a closed-off walled garden where information gets in only at the discretion of press officers. If that is true, that's the real weak spot of the whole system. And hopefully this blunder can help change it, as well as the 2-year ongoing conversation with a prominent director who does not vilify Russia like most celebrities do. 

Many film-makers can learn a lot from that: especially the investigative journalists, whistleblowers and photographers who tend to think that exposing the truth is a universal answer to everything. No, it is not. The truth is out there, but it's a very subjective matter. And if you can change the opinion of your subject, maybe even a little bit, you're also changing what this truth may be.  

Screenshot from Oliver Stone's Putin's Interviews, by Showtime


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