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HOT DOCS 2022

Review: The Killing of a Journalist

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- Matt Sarnecki's investigative documentary about the 2018 murder of journalist Ján Kuciak explores the effects of corruption in Slovakia, holding a mirror up to many self-proclaimed democracies

Review: The Killing of a Journalist

US-born, Bucharest-based video producer and filmmaker Matt Sarnecki's new documentary The Killing of a Journalist, which has just world-premiered at Hot Docs, tackles the 2018 murder of Slovak journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová. In addition to providing almost incredible access, this investigative documentary explores how the entanglement of organised crime with a corrupt government, legal system and law enforcement can practically define life in a nominally democratic European country.

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The main protagonist is Kuciak's colleague from the website Aktuality.sk, Pavla Holcová, who worked together with him on uncovering the links between the highest officials and the oligarch Marian Kočner, and with the Calabrian 'Ndrangheta mafia. In addition to her, Sarnecki interviews other journalists, sociologists, the families and lawyers of the murdered couple, but also Kočner's attorney.

Kočner turns out to be the central figure who, in effect, ruled the country until he was arrested just a few days after the murder for financial fraud. A typical, violent 1990s oligarch with flashy cars, gold chains and personalised iPhones, he carried his power over to the age of the EU membership of one of the most successful economies in Eastern Europe in the 2000s, at least on paper. But things were rotten inside, which is exactly what Andrej Kiska, the president at the time, said in his (questionably honest) address to the nation right after the killing, distancing himself from Prime Minister Robert Fico, Minister of the Interior Róbert Kaliňák and police chief Tibor Gašpar.

Within the space of only two weeks following the murder, pushed by growing public demonstrations, Fico and Kaliňák resigned, but Gašpar held on for another two months. Things were far from over even then, though: it was not easy to prove the connections with organised crime, and the judicial system was populated by prosecutors and judges under Kočner's control. But then, Holcová received a leak of 70 TB worth of documents, including Kočner's emails and phone records, from an anonymous source in the police who was afraid that, right before the upcoming elections, they might “disappear”.

With CCTV cameras installed throughout Slovak cities, it wasn't hard to find the shooter, the driver and the middleman. An incredible reconstruction video shows us the shooter retracing his steps with the police, demonstrating and explaining how he killed the couple. In a testimony video, the middleman enters into a plea bargain and faces the person who allegedly ordered the murder: a woman close to Kočner, who served as a honey trapper for politicians in lofty positions.

Despite all of the evidence, it is still not certain whether Kočner will be found guilty. But this suspenseful development takes a back seat to the exploration of how deep the corruption in the government ran. Sarnicki makes an excellent case for it through in-depth interviews woven into an engrossing story cut by editor Janus Billeskov Jansen, recently best known for Flee [+see also:
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and Another Round [+see also:
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. However, the shape of this documentary owes more to his earlier work on Thomas Vinterberg's The Hunt [+see also:
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, with the complexity of the topic and the comprehensive ways of connecting the issues within it.

When Fico wishes to respond to Kiska's statement, he asks, “Why did the president meet with George Soros in New York in 2017?” This followed a show he put on for the press, placing one million euros in cash on the table for information about the killer. Such sheer arrogance shown by an official, and his disconnection from reality, will be familiar to people in countries such as Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Serbia, but the film's point and how it gets to it will work around the world.

The Killing of a Journalist is a co-production between Denmark's Final Cut for Real and Go Fat Productions, the Czech Republic's Frame Films, and the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. Cinephil has the international rights.

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