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‘Propaganda is cheap’: what can Agnieszka Holland’s film on exposing Stalin’s crimes teach us about the truth today?

‘Propaganda is cheap’: what can Agnieszka Holland’s film on exposing Stalin’s crimes teach us about the truth today?

Mr Jones, the latest release from Poland’s Agnieszka Holland, is an ode to the lofty search for truth in Stalin’s Soviet Union. But with modern day “fake news” still dominating the headlines, are we doomed to keep repeating the history’s mistakes? The award-winning director sat down with The Calvert Journal to discuss the power of propaganda, artists’ agendas, and confronting the past.

3 October 2019

By 1932, the smothering weight of Stalin’s cult of personality already clung to millions of Soviet lives. Portraits of the Soviet leader were hung in schools, factories, or across the facades of public buildings. The show trials of those Stalin deemed spies or saboteurs were paraded across the front pages of party-controlled newspapers. Questioning the will of the Kremlin — whether it was the government’s ambitious five-year plans or blueprint for forced collectivisation — soon became shorthand for heresy.

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Both policies, however, were already killing millions. The Holodomor, a man-made famine that ravaged Soviet Ukraine between 1932 and 1933, left corpses rotting in the streets. Just months before, thousands of wealthier farmers had been deported or executed as class enemies, while those who survived — usually after being forced into collective farms — saw harvests fatally mismanaged under inflated quotas or shipped off to feed citizens elsewhere. Estimated death tolls fall anywhere between 3.3 to 12 million, although most lean closer 7.5 million. The tragedy has since been classed by some historians — and a number of nations — as genocide.

It’s these events that Polish director Agnieszka Holland is determined to bring into the public gaze, even as the lessons of history begin to repeat themselves. Her latest feature, Mr. Jones, recounts the journey of Welsh journalist Gareth Jones (James Norton) into Ukraine during 1933, unprepared for the horror that would confront him there. Speaking at the Berlinale, where the film had its world premiere, she explains what is at stake when ideological agendas and brute power reign over truth.

“If such crimes are accepted by silence, it poisons the future,” says Holland. Even so, the Holodomor has been portrayed rarely in cinema. “There have been very few films made about Stalin’s crimes in general. Russians haven’t wanted it,” she says. “Now the new generation of leftists, who are very disappointed with modern capitalism — which became even more brutal after the Soviet Union fell apart — don’t want to hear that Stalin was as big a monster as Hitler was.” In other cases, such as for many Ukrainians, the tragedy has been simply too painful to revisit. “Of course it isn’t something you want to remember— it makes you ashamed of your heritage,” Holland says. “Ukraine is now working on tying this memory to the identity of the nation.”

Holland is herself no stranger to the horrors of wartime Europe. Her parents were activists (her mother participated in the Warsaw Uprising as a member of the Polish resistance), and her cinema is politically charged, often dealing with abuses of power and human fortitude under oppression. She has made several films about the Holocaust, including the Oscar-nominated Europa Europa (1991) and In Darkness (2011). Her work has been controversial — in large part, because she refuses to categorise people as definitively “good” or “evil”, instead acknowledging everyone’s capacity for both.

“Investigative journalism is very expensive, but propaganda is cheap”

Nevertheless, the character of Jones appealed to Holland because of his fair-minded approach. “Gareth is matter-of-fact,” she says. “He’s not serving some ideological cause; he just wants to know what is true. It was so difficult for anyone not to get caught up by fascism, or communism, which were these big, new ideas at the time, and I found him fascinating in his simplicity and decency. He’s not a big hero, just a little man who goes off a bit like a hunting dog, and he’s unstoppable.”

Walter Duranty, the Moscow bureau chief for the New York Times between 1922 and 1936, meanwhile appears in the film as a counterpoint to Jones’ dogged dedication. Peter Saarsgard plays the wooden-legged Pulitzer-winner as a shady libertine who presides over orgiastic gatherings in his swanky apartment like he’s a mogul of vice. It’s not your typical Hollywood-style exaggeration: the real-life Duranty was a friend (and fellow opium enthusiast) of famous occultist Aleister Crowley, who churned out pro-Stalin stories with the kind of opportunistic zeal that suggested his prime motivation was maintaining his cushy lifestyle. His apologist line held sway in the West, particularly as the local intelligentsia were often sympathetic to the Soviet regime.

Agnieszka Holland. Image by Malwina Toczek under a CC licence

Agnieszka Holland. Image by Malwina Toczek under a CC licence

Unlike his hedonistic counterpart, Jones — helped by inside information from fellow journalist Ada Brooks (Vanessa Kirby) — takes a train from Moscow to Kharkov, evading the security services. It’s there in Ukraine’s snowy expanses that the film’s real power lies. The train journey is shot with stylistic nods to Dziga Vertov and the futuristic energy of propaganda footage lauding the world-changing force of industry, but Jones instead arrives to another world: one which provides only misery and stark contrasts. In this silent void of bleak midwinter, many inhabitants are already dead, and none of those who remain wish to speak to this strange outsider. Instead, a few children sing a macabre nursery rhyme: a song about a neighbour who goes mad and eats his own children. “The song is real — we found it in documents from the time,” says Holland. “The melody didn’t survive, so my composer came up with one which is very simple and haunting.”

Author Guzel Yakhina on the traumas of Soviet history
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It’s this section of the film — the classic image of tireless reporter against the powers that be — that Holland believes has the power to resonate today. She worries that the integrity of the global media is undermined in our increasingly polarised societies. “Investigative journalism is very expensive, but propaganda is cheap — you don’t need to check it, and can just invent it,” she says. “But without an honest objective to journalism, democracy cannot survive. So we are in a dangerous moment. I still think that there are a lot of journalists who want to serve ethics, and think their work is to report the truth, but they often pay a pretty high price — sometimes the highest price, assassination.”

But even amid her own cinematic ode to the truth, the director admits that even she is not immune to self-deception. “It is so difficult to be honest, even to yourself,” she says. “Of course, I have my own agenda. I support liberal democracy and am anti-populist. And I’m a big supporter of the European Union. I know that it is not perfect but I think that without it we are really in a mess. But I have to be careful not to follow my agenda too closely, and ignore facts that don’t support my point of view. I am a fairly intelligent person, with life experience, and even I very easily fall into this trap.”

Mr. Jones screens at the BFI London Film Festival on 6, 7 and 9 October

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