On New Year’s Eve 1999, Boris Yeltsin, the first president of Russia, publicly announced his resignation after an eight year administration, voluntarily handing his power over to Vladimir Putin. Rather than immediately showing this event from the perspective of Yeltsin or Putin— the subject of Putin’s Witnesses— director Vitaly Mansky begins the film from the point of view of his wife and daughters. Having cheerfully opened New Year’s presents earlier in the day, Mansky’s wife Natalia— the producer of the film— expresses bitter disdain towards the president’s resignation, calling it a “dirty trick.”
These family scenes— which are sprinkled amidst interviews with Putin, Yeltsin, and people central to their lives— reveal the ironic tension between Mansky’s work and his beliefs. In spite of his oppositional stance to Vladimir Putin, Mansky’s empathetic and intimate portrayal of him was meant to aid Putin’s popularity during the 2000 presidential elections. As the director sarcastically reflects early on in the film,
My team meticulously documented the candidate for presidency in his unremitting toil for the benefit of the people.”
Nevertheless, through his omniscient narration of the documentary, Mansky expresses a controlled yet powerful resistance to the Russian leader. He does so in part by showing Natalia’s negative sentiments towards Putin and her excitement to vote against him. “Even if nothing depends on us, at least we won’t be for the communists,” she says. Natalia herself reflects a passion for a new, democratic Russian government— one which differs from the country’s dark history under Soviet rule. The 2000 presidential elections in Russia were, after all, the first time Russians could vote as registered citizens, and were therefore an important moment in Russia’s democracy.
In his documentary, Mansky entertains this idea of a new democratic government but contrasts it against Putin’s policies and stances. This in itself is an act of resistance, presenting Putin as merely another manifestation of the Russia’s Soviet past. Putin’s Witnesses reveals the intertwinement of the old and the new in Putin’s Russia. This marriage of past and present is well exemplified in Putin’s commission for a new national anthem, which features the music of the Soviet anthem with different lyrics. In the end, that is exactly how Mansky portrays Putin’s government— new words, same old tune. With Putin, the new is just a revised version of the old.
Putin’s Witnesses is a testament to a nation’s hope for a better future, entwined with the resurgence of its controversial past. It is at once candid and performative, mixing intimate family moments with somewhat curated and rehearsed glimpses into Putin’s life. Mansky’s groundbreaking documentary grants the viewer the chance to witness Putin beyond his performance, either when he chose to be candid or when Mansky exposed him without his knowledge. Such a close look at Vladimir Putin is otherwise available to only a few, and it is especially inaccessible amidst Putin’s tight rein over the media. With its bone-chilling ending message, in which Mansky warns of the consequences of complicity, Putin’s Witnesses calls on its viewers not be mere witnesses of tyranny, or the nation will pay the price.