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“Our Film Highlights the Bravery of Those Willing to Stand Up to Putin Despite the Personal Cost, But It Should Also Act as a Wakeup Call”: James Jones on his Tribeca-Debuting Antidote


A real-life high stakes thriller from Emmy (and BAFTA and Cinema Eye)-winning filmmaker James Jones (Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes, Wanted: The Escape Of Carlos Ghosn), Antidote follows a few brave men who have chosen to put their lives (and thus those of their families) on the line to bring down the Putin regime: a whistleblowing insider to Russia’s poison program; the twice-poisoned, Russian-British activist-journalist (and current political prisoner) Vladimir Kara-Murza; and Bellingcat’s Christo Grozev, last seen in Daniel Roher’s Oscar-winning Navalny exposing the murderers who unsuccessfully poisoned the late activist before confinement to a Siberian prison finished the job. Which, inevitably and predictably, has now resulted in Grozev’s own name being added to the cascading kill list.

A week prior to the doc’s Tribeca debut, Filmmaker reached out to the Russian-fluent British director — a onetime resident of Russia as well — to learn all about making this latest feature, including safety precautions taken and why it won’t be coming to any UK theaters soon.

Filmmaker: You noted in your director’s statement that “Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes told the story of an empire collapsing under the weight of its own lies. In many ways, I see this as a contemporary version of the same story.” I’m not really sure what you mean by that, though. Do you really see Russia on the verge of collapsing like the USSR?

Jones: Good question — I should have been more explicit. There were five years between the accident at Chernobyl and the collapse of the Soviet Union. I’m not suggesting Putin’s regime is going to collapse tomorrow, but it is in terminal decline, which Putin’s actions are now accelerating. Fighting a costly and unsustainable war (now eight percent of GDP), locking up anyone who criticizes the war, and making Russia increasingly isolated from the international community are all eroding faith in Putin’s regime. Many Russians turned a blind eye to politics for many years because Putin gave them stability and improved their quality of life. Now that is no longer the case, he is living on borrowed time.

The gap between Putin’s propaganda and the grim reality of the war, with hundreds of thousands of body bags returning to Russia, will become increasingly obvious over the coming years and eventually that will lead to a breaking point. The hope that enough Russians want to live in a modern, outward-looking country is what drives brave people like Vladimir Kara-Murza to make such extraordinary sacrifices for their country. For them and for the world, I hope they’re right.

Filmmaker: You also mentioned that Passion Pictures and Bellingcat’s initial pitch to you involved exposing Russia’s assassination machine, which obviously turned into something much more personal due to unforeseen circumstances with one of your characters. So what was your original vision for the film? Was it always to follow the storylines of these three specific individuals?

Jones: The initial pitch for the film was to focus on Putin’s assassination program through Bellingcat’s investigations. With the invasion of Ukraine, Putin’s actions changed and the world was a very different place. We needed to adjust to that changed reality.

Instinctively, I am always more drawn to a present tense narrative to tell an ongoing story so I leaned into that as soon as I came onboard. The first thing I filmed was the whistleblower from the poison program escaping from Russia. The stakes for him and his family were so high that I wanted to focus on his ongoing story, rather than just his testimony about the work of the poison program. The change of focus made the film much more human and universal, rather than a more pure investigation.

I have long admired Vladimir Kara-Murza. He is an amazingly brave and principled man who took the decision to return to Russia, even though he had already been poisoned twice by the Russian state. Following the court process of his sham of a trial in Moscow felt like the best way to understand the chilling effect on any dissent inside Russia. I think even in his worst nightmares he couldn’t have predicted he would be sentenced to 25 years for “treason.”

Christo Grozev was always going to be a key character in the film as he drove the investigations which had uncovered Putin’s hitmen. But I was always interested in the personal toll and risk that his work entailed. Halfway through filming he discovered a plot against him which turned his life upside down, and, as a filmmaker, it was something I had to follow and document.

Filmmaker: I’m very curious to hear about working with your visual effects supervisor Ryan Laney, who pioneered digital veiling with Welcome to Chechnya. I know you used the process to protect one of your characters along with his family, but why go this arduous route as opposed to using more traditional means?  And how did you safeguard the footage before it was altered?

Jones: We filmed with the whistleblower initially not knowing that we would have to disguise his identity. Once he had set up a new life in a host country a decision was taken that his face should not be shown. Clearly the most important thing was to protect him and his family. The whistleblower still wanted to tell his story so we began to explore different methods of achieving that. Blurring his face would have compromised the power of his story as you would completely lose him as a person.

I had seen Welcome to Chechnya and some of Ryan’s other work so we had a conversation. I was impressed not only by his technical skill and the technological advancements in recent years, but also his seriousness in terms of the security. I didn’t need to stress to him that this was potentially a matter of life and death. He understood that implicitly. We began a process of tests and I became convinced we could make a version of the film where we could guarantee the whistleblower’s safety while also retaining the emotional power of the story. I showed the footage to the whistleblower and he was thrilled we had found a solution. The use of technology in documentaries is a thorny and much-debated issue. I think the key is transparency. We are clear with the viewer that facial features have been altered and it is entirely a security measure.

Filmmaker: Could you talk a bit about the safety precautions deployed for you and your crew? Do you still face certain threats?

Jones: We operated in a high level of secrecy from the very beginning. We only communicated using encrypted apps, told no one about the project, worked in a separate bunker inside the office only we could access, kept the edit offline so it could never be hacked – even locked the door of the edit every time we went to the bathroom! Sometimes you feel like you are going overboard, but events showed that we were right to be cautious.

The Russian state does target journalists around the world in ways that shocked even us. It’s hard to know how high the threat remains, but it’s clear that the Russian state is increasingly using local criminal proxies to do their dirty work, which makes it impossible to feel secure.

Filmmaker: I think this is the first film I’ve seen with a UK coverage advisory in place for press, which is understandable since there’s an ongoing court case you’re trying to protect (though I worry about how enforceable that is in today’s global media environment). So what are your hopes and fears now that the doc is out in the world? Are you holding the UK release until after the criminal trial concludes?

Jones: The film won’t be shown in the UK until after a criminal trial has concluded. We hope the film will be seen widely around the world. Our film highlights the bravery of those willing to stand up to Putin despite the personal cost, but it should also act as a wakeup call. Elections this year may bring in leaders and strongmen who push a softer line on Putin amid growing fatigue with the war in Ukraine. Our film shows he targets not only Russians but also foreign journalists all around the world. The war on journalism and political opponents is not unique to Russia and should be a warning to us all.

More specifically, we hope that the film will keep the pressure up to secure the release of Vladimir Kara-Murza who has a British passport and whose family lives in America. His health is failing, after two poisonings and being held in terrible conditions in a Siberian gulag. We must do everything we can to bring him home before it’s too late.

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