Krakow FF 2023: The Dmitriev Affair
International Documentary Competition
Dutch Jessica Gorter talks to SEE NL’s Nick Cunningham about her new film telling the story of Yuri Dmitriev, a man who has dedicated his life to identifying and naming the tens of thousands who perished during the Great Terror under Stalin.
The Dmitriev Affair by Jessica Gorter
Dutch filmmaker Jessica Gorter’s latest film tells the story of Yuri Dmitriev, a Russian who has dedicated his life to locating the execution sites of Stalin’s Great Terror in his native Karelia, a region in the north-west Russia. His singular task was to identify and name as many victims as possible, thus offering comfort to bereaved relatives even 70 years after their loved ones were murdered. “He gave back these people to their families,” says Gorter.
Dmitriev may be considered a hero outside of Russia, but within his homeland he has been, for the past two decades, a consistent irritant to the authorities. Perestroika gave him the opportunity to commence his searches into the mass exterminations of fellow Karelians and others, but the openness of the Gorbachev years was short-lived. Little by little, admiration for the autocratic Stalin and his muscular potency began to form once again among many Russians and their political masters, and the work of campaigners like Dmitriev was no longer tolerated.
In 2016 he was arrested on trumped up charges of child pornography. After two trials, both of which delivered results of acquittal, he was sentenced, in 2021, to 15 years imprisonment following an unprecedented third judicial examination.
The sentence, director Gorter argues, snuffed out yet another dissenting voice, together with the likes of Alexei Navalny and Vladimir Kara-Murza (and even US journalist Evan Gershkovich who was arrested on charges of espionage in March 2023), and adds to Russia’s record under Putin of systematically rewriting its own history, and expunging its atrocities of the past. For every Dmitriev looking to expose the violence of the Stalin era, the Russian state can, as we see in The Dmitriev Affair, provide any number of forensic scientists and historians to offer a pro-Kremlin counter narrative.
Gorter first met Dmitriev in 2016 when she travelled to Karelia to film her documentary The Red Soul (2017), which dealt squarely with the rehabilitation of Stalin within the hearts and minds of many within Russia. Dmitriev was one of the protagonists of Gorter’s film, having discovered and published the names of more than 7,000 people, among a total of 30,000, who were executed and buried in the mass grave at Sandarmokh. Gorter was fascinated by this man of extreme dedication and doggedness.
But even then, Dmitriev felt a deep sense of foreboding about his future, and how the state would react to his continuing work. “Somehow we just felt, and he also felt, there was a sense of urgency. I told him ‘I would love to come back and film more with you because what you're doing is incredible and I would love to continue,’” says Gorter. “He said, ‘that will be great, but I'm not sure if I'll be around because they're after me. I don't know if I'll still be here.’”
“Half a year later when I was in the middle of editing with The Red Soul, I got the phone call saying that he was arrested,” Gorter continues. “I guess that was the moment when I really decided, ‘okay, so I need to make this film. I need to know where this is going.’”
The director is stoically realistic about what documentary can achieve for such victims of injustice as Dmitriev. Daniel Roher’s Navalny won the documentary Oscar this year, but the subject of that film still languishes in a Russian jail, despite the international clamour for his release. Likewise, Dmitriev is likely to remain incarcerated for 15 years, unless unforeseen developments determine otherwise. “My impact campaign for this film is making as many people as possible get to see it, and get to know his story. I never say never, but I don't think a film immediately gets him out of prison. My contribution is to do what I do best as a filmmaker, to tell his story and at the same time place it in the wider context of what is happening in Russia today.”
Despite her trepidation over Dmitriev’s well-being and future, Gorter is delighted that the film will world premiere at the Krakow Film Festival. In 2015, Dmitriev received the Gold Cross of Merit from Poland for his work in identifying thousands of Polish victims at the mass extermination sites of Sandarmokh and Solovki. “He connected them with their families. The people of Poland are very aware of what happened in the past and what could easily happen in the future - and they are aware of Yuri’s story,” the director ends.
The Dmitriev Affair world premieres at Krakow Film Festival next week. It is produced by Zeppers Film & TV and supported by the Netherlands Film Fund.
The Red Soul (2017) is supported by the Netherlands Film Fund and Film Production Incentive.