Tribeca 2024 Interview: James Jones on Exposing Russia’s Poisonous Attempts at Silencing Critics in “Antidote”

The story itself in “Antidote” was one that James Jones had known pretty well as a student of Russian history, watching opposition be silenced by whatever means necessary time and again from the Soviet era to the Putin regime without a trace. The director has long been concerned with abuses of power around the world, from the 2019 film “On the President’s Orders” (with co-director Olivier Sarbil) about Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte’s merciless campaign against anyone thought to be part of the drug trade to 2022’s “Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes,” in which the cover-up of the nuclear disaster threatened to make the catastrophe that much worse. However, even as the world took notice of suspicious deaths often a result of poisoning that likely involved the Kremlin, making a case had always been virtually impossible when it wasn’t only enemies that were directly eliminated but their mysterious murders would prevent anyone from coming forward.

“Antidote” couldn’t have been made any earlier than the present when it involves state-of-the-art technology – like David France’s “Welcome to Chechnya,” which protected political dissidents with deep fake technology, at least one participant in the doc gets a virtual facelift to protect their identity. However, the nonfiction thriller is also made possible by the online savvy of Bellingcat, the open-source citizen journalist outfit that has forged a network around the world to build investigations and seized on metadata as a means to create timelines for criminal cases that could subsequently be referenced as evidence in court.

Jones is able to sit down with Christo Grozev, the Bulgarian journalist who spearheaded efforts into exposing Russia’s biochemical assassination program as a part of Bellingcat, inevitably becoming a target of it himself the closer he got. Despite the threats to his life, Grozev carries on and “Antidote” follows his investigation in real time as he becomes increasingly aware of the personal stakes attached to his determination to reveal the truth, hardly concerned for himself personally, but learning from the families left broken by the disappearance or deaths of their loved ones, it isn’t merely the aggression committed against them that can be devastating, but the lack of resolution that could be puzzled over by relatives and friends for eternity. Made under a great deal of secrecy itself given the sensitivities involved, the film recently debuted at Tribeca and Jones spoke about the relief of putting the eye-opening exposé out into the public, finding a way to finally get his arms around such a thorny story and how the moment was right to connect the dots.

How did this come about? 

I have a long-standing fascination with Russia. I’ve lived there, I speak Russian, and I’ve wanted to do a film about Putin as a killer for many years. Four or five years ago I went to Moscow to try and do it, but it was always very hard to prove lots of these assassinations until Bellingcat came along. Then almost like by magic, suddenly we’re able to pinpoint which Russian spy and assassin moved where, and it just changed the game completely. When [Bellingcat] and a production company called Passion in London got in touch to say they wanted to do a feature documentary about Russia’s assassination program, it felt like fate. It was the film that I’ve wanted to make for a long time. In the initial conception, it was going to be more of a retrospective looking back at assassinations [Bellingcat] solved, whereas I wanted to understand the threat and the tension and the sacrifice people made by living in their shoes a bit more in the present moment, particularly as the world was changing so much, so we pivoted to more of a present tense narrative.

Which is interesting since you’ve said this felt a lot like your previous film “Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes.” Did that actually help you figure out how to tell this story?

Yeah, I haven’t probably haven’t like fully thought it through, but what drew me to Chernobyl was not just the tragedy and the sacrifice, but the lies of the government propaganda that contrasted with the grim reality, then this cathartic ending when the Soviet Union collapses five years after. So part of this moment with Putin and Russia, and him sacrificing his own people by the hundreds of thousands, sending them to Ukraine to die in this horrible pointless war, and then targeting journalists and locking up political opponents, it feels to me like a regime living on borrowed time in the same way. Now I’m not saying that Putin’s regime is going to fall tomorrow. But it feels like a similar point where there is something so fundamentally wrong and the secrecy and lies ultimately catch up with you. It’s not a perfect analogy, but it definitely felt like there were parallels.

When the situation itself is so sensitive, do the circumstances of telling a story like this lead to more creative ideas about how to tell the story? 

It was a challenging film on so many levels – security, logistics – and then creatively in terms of filmmaking. Because I was so keen for a lot of the film to exist in the present moment, I wanted to use animation when you do go into a backstory, so it would be very clear to the viewer and not to do dramatic reenactments that blur the line a bit, but to be very distinct and engaging. It’s a dark story, but it doesn’t necessarily need to feel overwhelming. Then in terms of security, there’s obviously the whistleblower who was a scientist as part of the Russian poison program and we filmed him not knowing we would have to disguise his identity. He’s now got a new life in a host country and we had to figure out a way to hopefully include his story, but not compromise his safety, so we explored using AI to basically alter his face so that he wouldn’t be recognizable. That was a long and complicated process, but it allowed us to make to be absolutely sure that he and his family are safe, and include his story as he wanted, to understand the stakes of his story, which were really life and death. Then also, it became such an unpredictable story with Christo’s own narrative, and what he went through, so it was a wild ride.

There’s a main interview with Christo that becomes the backbone for the whole movie. At what point in the process did you actually want to film that?

We did that about a year ago now. He found out about the threat against himself and terrible things that he and his family went through had happened at that point, so it felt like a good moment to look back and [ask], did you ever expect to investigate a plot against yourself? It was so challenging in the edit because it was you never knew quite where the end would be and the more interesting documentaries, you [typically] don’t know because it is just genuinely unfolding. So but at some point, we thought we want to just get him to tell his story and his life was at risk at some point, so we wanted to capture all of it with him while he was available to us and able to talk. He’s not a public figure, like Navalny, who’s a politician who speaks publicly about himself all the time, so getting him in that space felt like a confessional where he could be more reflective about what he was going through when [he’s often] so involved in his investigations, that he almost blocks out his feelings sometimes.

Evgenia Kara-Murza also becomes a part of the emotional core of the movie as you see what she’s lost as a result of the pressure put on her husband, the imprisoned human rights advocate Vladimir Kara-Murza. What was she like to connect with?

She’s an amazing woman and she’s very smart and really charming. She’s the wife of a political activist and while Vladimir went traveling the world, trying to expose Putin’s wrongdoing, she was home with the family. Then when her husband was locked up in Russia, she took it upon herself to become more of a public figure, but she’s not someone who enjoys having a camera on her, or speaking publicly, but she happens to be very good at it, so it was really interesting to see her grow in confidence, and force herself to do it and be away from her kids who’ve already lost their dad to a Russian prison because she basically thinks the more she keeps her husband in the public eye, the less chance he will be killed or die in prison. So I’m very fond of her and very grateful to her for opening up to us.

Was there anything that changed your ideas of what this could be?

Yeah, as the filming went on, it became clearer towards the end that it was a film about what you sacrifice in standing up to Putin, and it became more universal when [you looked at] what Putin targets to hurt people, whether it’s their life, their freedom, their family. On some level, the three [subjects we follow] are quite different. There’s the Russian scientist who has a morally complex past, Christo the journalist, and then the Kara-Mirzas, but they’re all risking everything to speak out against Putin and try and expose the regime and it felt like understanding the personal sacrifice and costs that each of these individuals was making became clearer as a running theme the longer we went on because each of the stories was incredibly detailed and complicated. But actually, in the end, the film has a simplicity where you understand it on a human level.

Given the secrecy involved, this has to be heavy burden to carry to the end. What’s it like to get to this point with it where you’re about to send it out into the world? 

I’m mainly excited and nervous. It’s very surreal to have been working in such secrecy for two years and to suddenly be talking to journalists about it and show it in theatres in New York. It feels counterintuitive, but really exciting. I’m proud of the film and proud of everyone who’s involved in it and eager to see the reaction to it and the impact the film will have at what feels like an important moment for politics in lots of different places.

“Antidote” will screen at the Tribeca Festival on June 8th at 9 pm at the AMC 19th St. East 6 and June 9th at 6:15 pm at the AMC 19th St. East 6. It will also screen at DC/Dox at the Landmark E-Street Cinema in Washington DC on June 15th at 5:15 pm.

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