Russian director Medvedeva turns Putin into film hero
- 30 December 2015
- From the section Europe
President Vladimir Putin is the constant hero of TV news programmes in Russia. But in 2015, he was also the star of some epic TV documentaries.
Two were produced by Saida Medvedeva, a publicity-shy, Kazakh-born director, who in the past few years has come to be the Kremlin's favourite film-maker.
President - a two-and-a-half-hour documentary - was aired on state channel Rossiya 1 in April, to mark the 15th year of Mr Putin's rule. It has a short episode near the end about an encounter in 2005 between the Russian president and a donkey on Mount Athos in Greece, one of the holy sites of Orthodox Christianity.
An Orthodox monk recalls how the donkey ran ahead of a car being driven by Mr Putin, on his way to visit a monastery. It waited for him outside and ran ahead of him again on the return journey. Eventually, the donkey got tired and stopped by the roadside.
Mr Putin stopped too, and for several minutes man and donkey remained still, contemplating one another.
It was a sign for the president from the Holy Mother, the monk suggested. "He can probably understand better what it meant," he adds.
Some viewers might have been reminded of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey.
The mingling of the mystical and mundane in President is a hallmark of Masterskaya, the film production company that 62-year-old Medvedeva founded in 2004.
It was a trait earlier exhibited in a pair of lavish TV documentaries about natural phenomena.
Water (2006) told of a mysterious substance that could be influenced by, among other things, words uttered in its vicinity.
Mould (2009) presented its subject as an all-powerful, indestructible organism that was a "warning" to human vanity.
Both films were condemned by academics as "pseudoscience", but they went down a storm with viewers and, in the case of Water, earned Masterskaya and Medvedeva a hatful of awards.
They were also testament to Medvedeva's ability to attract funds from wealthy investors. Mould was said at the time to be the most expensive documentary ever made for Russian TV.
A recent review of Water in The New York Times accused the makers of using "slippery-worded generalisations, unattributed studies and vague claims". "Hard evidence and competing viewpoints are non-existent," it said.
The myth-makers in the Kremlin soon recognised the value of Medvedeva's work.
Ahead of the 2008 presidential election, state TV relentlessly promoted a Masterskaya documentary called Death of an Empire - a Byzantine Lesson. It suggested the great ancient civilisation of Orthodox Christianity had been undermined by Western decadence, and that a similar fate could befall Russia.
The film was written and narrated by Archimandrite (now Bishop) Tikhon, who is widely reported to have been Mr Putin's spiritual adviser.
Masterskaya was also behind a series of films that supported Mr Putin's successful bid for a third term as president in 2012. They included Crisis 2008: Saving Russia, which portrayed him as preserving the country from the worst of the global economic slump.
Mr Putin again appears as the saviour or, at least, the man with the planet's fate in his hands, in Medvedeva's latest epic documentary, World Order, shown on Rossiya 1 on 20 December.
It opens and closes with TV anchor Vladimir Solovyov (also the film's co-author) asking Mr Putin, with apparent trepidation: "Will there be a war?"
"Do you mean a global war? I hope not," Mr Putin replies, before going on to stress the importance of Russia's nuclear arsenal.
Despite her status as an important film-maker, Medvedeva tends to shun the limelight. She is also reticent about discussing the man she has spent so much time chronicling.
Asked on state radio to comment on how Putin had changed in recent years, she replied: "I would not take it on myself to analyse our president's personality."