The Killing of a Journalist
(Denmark/Czech Republic, 100 min)
Dir. Matt Sarnecki
Program: International Spectrum (World Premiere)
If you thought Collective was an explosive meeting point for journalism and documentary, you haven’t seen anything yet. The Killing of a Journalist is a chilling inquiry into the brutal murders of Slovak investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová. With investigative rigour, Matt Sarnecki makes his feature directorial debut by drawing upon his background reporting in corruption and organized crime. The 2018 murders are a springboard for a much wider criminal network that is far reaching. The soul of a nation is stained and corrupted as The Killing of a Journalist uncovers why Kuciak was silenced with Kušnírová as collateral damage. The film features images of Slovaks protesting in the streets over the first journalist’s death since their nation gained independence. However, the investigation, which should do Kuciak proud as a journalist, ought to have everyone in the country rioting in the streets.
Sarnecki finds a useful ally in fellow journalist Pavla Holcová. She doubles as the film’s narrator as she explains the ins, outs, twists, and turns of the case. Holcová makes the motive for the murder clear. Kuciak, she explains, was digging into corruption and making headway on a major story. All fingers pointed to wealthy businessperson Marián Kocner in Kuciak’s investigation, and they do again here.
The murder itself is especially grisly stuff and leaves little doubt that Kuciak was the target. Photographs of the crime scene show that Kuciak was killed execution style, shot while kneeling on the stairwell. Kušnírová, meanwhile, died in the living room. Reporters note that unfinished coffees were on the table. Kušnírová’s laptop was open as well, for she’d been browsing wedding dresses right before she died.
The Killing of a Journalist shifts its chronology somewhat as Sarnecki and Holcová turn their attention to the investigation. The police make little headway on the case, while the chief balks at the suggestion that he’s responsible for someone dying on his watch. The case becomes a politically charged topic and divides the nation. Prime Minister Robert Fico is on one side and the President Andrej Kiska is on the other. However, something shifts when the former resigns, and an interim leader is brought in, and the police chief sheepishly steps down hours later.
Here’s where the crime assumes its first layer of juiciness. The murders were pretty sloppy. Investigators track down implicated parties quickly. One sings and soon another does too. They find the triggerman and the woman who hired him. (The latter being a very eccentric character!) Everything again points to Kocner, including damning recordings in which he threatened Kuciak. Everything adds up.
However, The Killing of a Journalist really elevates the investigation as Holcová and Sarnecki reveal the layers they discovered by going deeper. Not only did the extensive documentation of Kocner’s communications reveal his obvious direction of the murder, it exposes his larger and long-running chokehold on the Slovak state. Judges, politicians, cops, and prosecutors are all on his payroll. Worse, the journalists learn that Kocner even dictated decisions set down by the courts. The institutions sworn to safeguard Slovakia’s citizens were really just protecting the crooks.
Riveting True Crime
The Killing of a Journalist lets investigative reportage converge with film form as Sarnecki creates a riveting true crime tale. As an exposé, it’s explosive. As journalism, it’s watertight. Fact-checked, sourced, and with statements on the record, the film endures as an objective, clear-eyed account of the murder whatever the courts finally decide.
The film is especially effective as a rallying cry for freedom of the press. Kuciak and Kušnírová’s deaths speak to our collective need to protect citizens who ask the hard questions and seek the truth. After all, the work that a journalist like Kuciak leaves behind illustrates a heroic hunger to make the world a better place. It’s a shame the institutions he strove to protect don’t do the same.
The Killing of a Journalist premiered at Hot Docs 2022.