Review: The New Greatness Case
- Anna Shishova’s poignant yet chilling documentary methodically reveals the perversity and manipulation inherent to state repression in Russia
In the glass box which isolates her from the courtroom, a young 17-year-old woman trembles like a hunted animal while an official mumbles her charge at breakneck speed. It’s 2018 and Anna Pavlikova, who has been in custody for five months, faces 10-25 years in prison for belonging to an extremist group seeking to pull down the government. Welcome to Russia and The New Greatness Case, a wholly edifying documentary directed by Anna Shishova which was presented in a European premiere in the Sheffield Doc Fest’s Debates section. Those wondering why everyday Russians don’t seem too upset at their army attacking Ukraine are set to receive some hair-raising explanations. Light years away from the media noise surrounding the oppression of the country’s greater-known political opponents, it’s the system which methodically traps young people and looks to obliterate the prospect of any internal dissidence within Russia which is dissected in this documentary, whilst also highlighting in incredibly moving fashion the desperate fight fought by a mother and a small cohort of human rights defenders.
Anne was planning on studying biology at university, she was revising for her exams while working for a vet and was looking for friends online who shared her interests. Someone suggested she join a discussion group called New Greatness, whose members covered all kinds of topics: music, ecology and politics. Some of them started meeting up in a local cafe and going out together in Moscow. Then one of them suggested hiring a place where they could meet up… Fast forward a few months and the confessions of one of the group’s members, broadcast on the government’s Telegram channel and immediately going viral, are resulting in a media meltdown: New Greatness were preparing for direct action against the representatives of power and they were making Molotov cocktails… a revolution, in other words. The problem is that the witness for the prosecution was also the one who had plotted and orchestrated it all, steering the online forum, hiring the group’s premises, installing a hidden camera and microphones, directing attention away from the insignificance of their first meetings to focus on discussions of a more ideological nature, fabricating evidence, etc. And he wasn’t alone in his work: two others also infiltrated this organisation composed of 13 members, helping him to gradually close the net and establish the crime…
Following in the wake of Anna’s mother, who is supported by "The Mothers against Political Repression Movement", (highly pressured) human rights defenders and an investigative journalist, the director lifts the veil on the precise methods of manipulation employed by the FSB, while charting a legal process characterised by protests and small victories, born out of embarrassing revelations for the authorities. But crucially, it reveals the torturous anxiety experienced by those whose lives are in limbo, if not entirely destroyed. Even though at the end of this totally uneven fight – think earthen pot against iron pot, small picket signs against the state apparatus, hunger strike versus the Damocles sword of prison, etc. - Anna is only sentenced to house arrest, The New Greatness Case brandishes a terrifying mirror, not only unveiling the powerful, obscure practices carried out by the security services of a country which is eating even the most anonymous of its own children, but also the exceptional bravery individuals are required to have in order to stand up to it, often at enormous personal cost. As stressed by the director: "when I was little, I imagined Stalin bursting out of my wardrobe at night-time to take me away to his terrible kingdom (…) It’s like the ghoul from my childhood has finally dragged me into his terrible kingdom and we’ve all become his hostages", "accustomed to living in fear, which has made us obedient and indifferent." It’s this very silence which is rigorously and incisively broken by Shishova’s documentary, an act which is both commendable and worthy of the utmost respect, given the risks undertaken by the filmmaking team.
(Translated from French)
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