Film Reviews

Review: ‘On Putin’s Blacklist’

Timely doc profiles Putin’s reign of terror


On Putin’s Blacklist
(Canada, 76 min.)
Dir. Boris Ivanov

One can’t label a charge of “Fake News” against Boris Ivanov’s timely documentary On Putin’s Blacklist. This documentary raises numerous concerns about Russia’s fall into the dark ages in the era of Vladimir Putin. Ivanov outlines the many reasons for which Russia is a human rights activist’s worst nightmare and, while much of the news is familiar, On Putin’s Blacklist makes a compelling argument that few countries deserve a greater sense of shame than Russia during Putin’s reign of terror.

Ivanov doesn’t spend too much time on worrying about the tomfoolery of Donald Trump, nor does much of On Putin’s Blacklist investigate the allegations that the results of the 2016 US presidential election are due to Russian influence, conspiracy, and tampering. The immediacy of the film somewhat undercuts the depth of the inquiry, since many questions in the USA-Russia conspiracy web remained unanswered, which will give fodder for an inevitable sequel. The film primarily considers the vast array of human rights violations in Russia and the lives impacted by Putin’s backwards politics.

A chief concern is the large class of innocents on Putin’s blacklist: Russia’s children. Ivanov explores Putin’s decision to prohibit the adoption of Russian children by American parents. The doc features engaging and emotional interviews with Russian-born orphans who found homes in America. Some of them speak of new opportunities, while others talk of past traumas that need time to heal. At the same time, Ivanov finds equally compelling perspectives from the foster parents who take young and at risk children into their homes, care for them, and give them better lives. These people aren’t the organ-harvesting predators that Putin characterizes them to be.

The same goes for the victims of Putin’s next war: same-sex couples. The doc speaks with numerous prospective parents who are denied the chance to give a home to Russian orphans because they live in a country that recognizes same-sex marriage. This unilateral blacklisting exemplifies the reach of the leader’s irrational prejudice.

Stories from Pussy Riot, meanwhile, highlight the incestuous relationship between church and state. The doc features the familiar images of the band storming churches in balaclavas while singing about perverse corruption and defying the link between institutions. Their protests illustrate the penalties one faces for speaking truth to power.

Other troubling aspects of Putin’s regime include the travesty of the judicial system. Talking heads from the legal community speak of courtrooms in which justice is a sham. Putin’s attack on NGOs, similarly, hinders progress and hurt the needy. Like Trump, he preys on the most vulnerable members of the society whom he was meant to protect. Putin’s rhetoric is similarly full of xenophobic paranoia and jingoism as he creates a war against everyone despite having fired the first, second, and third shots.

On Putin’s Blacklist culminates with Putin’s most notorious war against the LGBTQ community. The film looks at the freedoms enjoyed by one young gay Russian man named Justin. Justin enjoys life in Toronto with his boyfriend where they share an apartment that includes a bed adorned with Russian and Canadian flags unified by the pride emblem, a free expression of love that could get him killed back home. Marches in the Pride parade and rallies with youths offer encouragements for Russians to be proud and hopeful without taking for granted the rights they enjoy in their adopted home. Ivanov shows the positive impact that an open-minded society has on the individual when one can be oneself without fear of censure or violence.

There might not be much in On Putin’s Blacklist in terms of fresh information for anyone who keeps abreast of the news and current affairs, but the range of testimonies that Ivanov presents is compelling. Calling the Kremlin corrupt might be a little “been there, done that,” to savvy members of the doc community, but the argument is more urgent than ever now that Putin’s dangerous exertions of power have an evil twin in the form of Donald Trump’s unfortunate presidency. Talk about an unholy union.

On Putin’s Blacklist screens at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Thursday, Oct. 26 with director Boris Ivanov and subject Justin Romanov in attendance.
It opens in Toronto at the Kingsway on Friday, Oct. 27.