Dreaming of a tribunal and humanity

24 March 2016

The state once again brutally intrudes into the everyday life of an ordinary Russian family: without knocking on the door, in the special police uniform, with batons, accusations of treason and absurd criminal cases. Once again there is the kitchen, which is the center of the Russian liberal’s world. In the evenings, new, harsh laws and arrests are discussed here, and on New Year’s Eve, the TV set, showing ‘Uncle Vova’ with a Christmas tree behind him.


It all looks comical, but there is a tragic impotence behind it. ‘Feeding’ the national leader with curses through the TV screen is basically the only item in the toolkit of resistance which the ‘indignant’ are left with. Or at least, it is the only thing that Russian society is ready to do. Deep historical and socio-political pessimism resounds in the words of Eugenia, the protagonist of Dear Uncle Vladimir and the fiancee of Leonid Kovzin, one of the Bolotnaya Prisoners: ‘Many people are opposed, but who will go?’ The question, which is almost a case of extremism from the perspective of current Russian laws, hangs in the air menacingly.

The film by Maria Pavlova, filmed back in 2012, sounds like a prophesy from today’s perspective. During one of the political evenings in the kitchen, Eugenia says that what she fears the most are repression and war. The repression has already started, she says. And even though the subject of war was left undeveloped in her monologue, it is more than expressively developed in reality. Comparisons with the Stalinist era, which is mentioned in the film a couple of times, are of course a bit of a stretch; but there were more red carnations under Stalin’s bust in Moscow this year than ever before.


So far, all the most pessimistic predictions about Russia have turned out to be too optimistic. And finally we have understood that it concerns us too.

Actually, almost all of the films in this year’s DOCU/RIGHT program concern us. Or at least, they resound in a special way in the Ukrainian context – whether it is because they speak about the universal problems of human rights, or more widely, the rights of the humanity (mass terror, a soldier’s truth about war, people unfairly sentenced to life in prison, the problem of sex change), or because we live in a country that in recent years has faced an unprecedented amount of violence, covered by a wide selection of articles from the Treaty of Rome, from crimes against humanity to war crimes.

Take, for example, China, with which, it turns out, we have a lot of common. An activist attacked by paid hooligans ends up being arrested by the internal affairs officers for aggression against her attacker, and when she appeals to the law in the presence of the law enforcement officers, we can hear them saying, “Screw the law!” The Chinese people in uniform also protect their ‘civilian assistants,’ who – of course, completely voluntarily – go and smash the ‘whores’ or the ‘Maidanians’ (delete as applicable). We can only guess who was the first to do it, and who just borrowed this progressive practice from the pioneer.


As you know, the most horrible crimes against humanity in the 20th century were committed ‘in accordance with the law.’ Even if on a smaller scale, the practice has been echoed in humanity’s recent past. In the 2000s, it was also articulated, quite unambiguously and in a particularly cynical way, by a representative of the state of Iran, who had been involved to some extent in the massacre of political prisoners by the Khomeini regime in 1980-88. Without batting an eye and without interrupting his lunch, he quoted a court decision in response to the desperate words of one of the regime’s victims: “It was a court decision, and you have no right to question it.” The sense of disgust with this scene from Those Who Said No is only made worse by the fact that it took place in the setting of the Asian Ombudsmen’s Forum. The Iranian official had come there instead of Mostafa Pourmohammadi, who was the Iranian ombudsman at the time (and who now is the minister of justice of Iran); not only had he been present on the arenas of horrible slaughter, but he had been a member of a commission that issued death sentences. The cruel parody, the bloody oxymoron. Just like Russia’s membership of the UN Security Council.

Of course, Russia is not only not Ukraine, but also not Iran, and comparison is a thankless job; and facts, as you know, are stubborn things.

For example, in the 1980s, people in Iran were sentenced to death, because they were ‘against God,’ according to their ‘judges.’ Today, Viktor Krasnov, a blogger is tried in Russia for his words ‘There is no god’ on social media. Checkmate.

After all, Iran, as you know, also used to be a secular country, and history does not always move in the ‘right’ direction. And the happy end of the Russian film, where Leonid Kovzin is released from prison, does not look exactly happy from the perspective of today’s Russia, but rather as a prelude to the central drama which can (and will) turn out to be a prelude to a drama on an even larger scale.

The history of human rights teaches us that evolution is certainly not an irreversible process. But it also demonstrates that a small group of people, or even one strong person, can break its flow or give it a push towards change. In China, a single activist, the protagonist of Hooligan Sparrow, stirs up society by demanding to punish the government officials who have raped schoolgirls. Her personal belongings, thrown out of her rented dwelling and into the street, soon become objects in an installation in a contemporary art museum in the West. Indeed, such people deserve to be in museums. Can you imagine what such an exposition dedicated to one activist could look like in Ukraine?

Or, once again, about Iran. After years of efforts by the victims of the Khomeini regime, they manage to arrange an ‘Iranian Tribunal’ in Stockholm in 2013 – just a quarter of a century after the bloody events of 1988, when the fundamentalists murdered fifteen to twenty thousand people. Despite the tragic context, generally the film looks optimistic (if the term is appropriate here anyway), in the sense that punishment, or at least open international condemnation of the names of those who ‘order’ and execute large-scale crimes against humanity, is inevitable.


However in this film, Those Who Said No, another motif is important, one which I would hardly have noticed a couple of years ago. After hearing all the stories about captivity, the stories about the horrible crimes against those who dared to say ‘no’ in Iran are hardly horrifying any more. Instead, they remind us that these people with painful experiences, the victims of kidnapping and torture, live among us. For them, for those who went through the hell of captivity, every mundane detail can recall the most terrible experience in their lives. Are we sure that we have done everything in our power to help them, or at least to be sensitive to their stories? At the moment, a draft law is being prepared in Ukraine about the rehabilitation of the victims of captivity; a corresponding paragraph is also included in the Strategy on Human Rights, approved by the president. However, in our situation, passing laws and strategies do not mean that they will be implemented. This is also a law, but it’s one which, on the contrary, works nearly flawlessly.

Will these people remain invisible to society? Just like the soldiers with their truth of war, which the public would probably not like to hear. Just like those who rejoiced at Israel’s victory in the mid-20th century did not want to hear it. For Israeli soldiers, the protagonists of the film Censored Voices, the holy city of Jerusalem turns into a place that evokes a completely different and very painful experience, a identity previously unknown to them, that of an aggressor rather than a victim. Heroes do not always need pedestals; sometimes they just want to say how it all happened in reality, they want compassion and grateful listeners. It is difficult to find a topic which would be more relevant in Ukraine today, especially given that we, in our history, have also been the winners to a degree, not from the military perspective but from that of morality.

However touching are the scenes of the film David & Me and the triumph of justice in the case of David, who was unfairly sentenced to life in prison (and how shocking is the fact that, as recently as the 1970s, sentencing a person to life was possible based solely on their own testimony against themselves); however painful are the stories about the Khomeini regime; however scary are the promises of death to all infidels spoken by a child student of a Pakistani madrasa (Among the Believers), the most disarming are the scenes of Moroccan tenderness to Vladimir, a man with special needs, and his elderly mother, the scenes of their modest daily life with very few things happening. ‘Vla-dimir,’ the 38-year-old man tries to wake his sick mother from unconsciousness, ‘Fa-mi-ly.’ There is nothing to moralize about here (finally!), so you can simply watch the legendary Casa Blanca in a role completely different from the one that is familiar from classic cinema.

Maybe these scenes are so fascinating because we are still very far away from paying attention to the person? And, unfortunately, the war has only made this feeling worse. However troubling the latest events in Poland are, in the film Call Me Marianna we see Polish doctors and the medical system in general, ready to treat with understanding the people who seek to change their sex and help them to do it. It is especially striking compared to our own officials, who articulate ‘revolutionary’ theories that ‘gay culture leads to destruction of the world.’

And what looks like an absolutely unachievable peak of evolution is the special camp in Florida, where people convicted for sex crimes undergo therapy and rehabilitation. Of course, their life is far from joyful in the USA too, and society’s attitude to them varies widely, but at least there are people who can feel compassionate about their stories and, just as important, are able to institutionalize their compassion.

For Ukraine, so far, such expressions of humanity remain unreachable, and, most regrettably, we do not even dream about them. For now, we are only dreaming of a tribunal.


Maria Tomak


On photo Among the Believers by Hemal Trivedi 

April 2021