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When Danish film-maker Peter Anthony first came across Stanislav Petrov, the lieutenant colonel in the Soviet air defence forces who in 1983 averted imminent nuclear apocalypse when he refused to give credence to signals of a US attack, the 67-year-old colonel was living in a small, squalid apartment block 90 minutes outside Moscow. He reached it via dirt roads. Outside, derelicts clutched vodka bottles, walking barefoot despite the –10C temperatures. The stairwell to the apartment stank of dog’s urine. In the living room, a disused sink sat next to ripped furniture. “It was a bum’s apartment,” says Anthony, but for a small closet in which was hung a blue parade uniform decorated with medals; in a drawer was a stack of fan letters from American schoolchildren, plus one from Kevin Costner thanking him for what he had done.
The colonel himself — unshaven, possibly a little drunk, and looking as if he hadn’t eaten in days — was at first reluctant to talk about what had happened on the night of September 26 1983, when Soviet satellites mistakenly detected five US ballistic nuclear missiles heading towards the USSR. His story had long been a source of embarrassment to the Russian military. Everyone was afraid of taking the blame for what had happened. In the bunker outside Moscow where Petrov was stationed, alarm bells had sounded, electronic maps flashed; a back-lit red screen flashed the word “LAUNCH”, but Petrov, acting on what he would later call “a funny feeling in my gut”, thought the alarm a false one — five seemed too few for a full-scale attack, and there was still no corroboration from radars on the ground. He refused to confirm any incoming strike and a retaliatory one that would have likely killed somewhere in the region of 200m people was averted.
“The first thing I told him was, ‘I really want to go into your personal story,’” says Anthony. “He said, ‘That will never happen. I’m a Russian colonel. I do not talk about emotions.’ He was also a little evasive about what happened in 1983 because he was still afraid of what the army might think, and of the old KGB machine sending him to the gulag.”
Anthony found that Petrov’s answers to camera were frequently contradictory, or else they downplayed the events of 30 years ago — he’d say, “Oh, it was nothing special, this sort of thing happened a lot more on the American side.” Off-camera, however, he inveighed against the Soviet army and its failures. Returning for round two of filming, Anthony hit upon an unusual method somewhere between traditional documentary film-making and a kind of method-acted documentary. Reminding Petrov of a conversation he’d had the night before with his translator, Anthony would reshoot it, feeding the colonel cues to remind him of what he had said, asking for another take if he didn’t get what he wanted — in effect, shooting his film as if it were a narrative feature.
Combining thrilling re-enactments of what happened in 1983 (lots of radar-lit silhouettes, shouting, handheld cameras, and pounding score reminiscent of the latest Jerry Bruckheimer production) with present-day footage in which Petrov goes on a quest to meet Kevin Costner, the finished feature, The Man Who Saved the World, has picked up both awards and some criticism at the film festivals where it has shown, starting impassioned debates about the relationship between documentary art and truth. The two “quests” that make up its narrative — Petrov’s cross-country trip to meet Costner, his favourite actor after his role in the Cuban missile crisis drama Thirteen Days, and his tearful reunion with his mother at the film’s end — wouldn’t have happened but for the film-makers’ urging, and yet this involvement goes unacknowledged. At times the film-makers seem engaged not in making a movie of Petrov’s life, but in plotting his life as if it were a movie.
“When we have shown this at festivals they ask, ‘Is this a feature film, a narrative feature or a documentary?’” says Anthony. “The only thing I know about documentary is you’re not supposed to lie. I don’t even call it a documentary, I just call it a movie. I wanted to make this like a big feature film, like a superman story mixed with an emotional story about a man who lost everything. I wanted scale. I grew up on big epic movies like The Deer Hunter, and I think that because we’ve seen so many films, the way people speak and the way they act in movies has come to seem natural to an audience, even though it’s not, even though they’re being manipulated with music. So I used a lot of music because I wanted it to seem very ‘fictional’. What people have to understand is this is not a story about a drunken alcoholic who lost his wife, it’s about a man who saved the world from nuclear war, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime story, a larger-than-life story.”
Either way, the film looks certain to further the debate about the relationship between art and truth started by such documentaries as Andrew Jarecki’s recent HBO series about millionaire Robert Durst, The Jinx (2015), following which Durst was arrested on murder charges; Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picture (2014), which uses small clay figurines and dioramas to depict Panh’s experiences in Khmer Rouge labour camps; and Joshua Oppenheimer’s Oscar-nominated The Act of Killing (2012), for which Oppenheimer persuaded several admitted and unpunished executioners responsible for the deaths of at least half-a-million Indonesian communists in the mid-1960s to re-enact their murders in the style of their favourite movies — donning costumes and make-up to enact a kind of grisly psychopathic camp, complete with big production numbers and climaxing with a dance to the song “Born Free”.
“In The Act of Killing we created a documentary of the imagination which documents not the killings themselves but the way the perpetrators have lied to themselves,” says Oppenheimer, whose new film, The Look Of Silence (2014), records a series of confrontations between a man and those in power in Indonesia who may have had a hand in killing his brother. In both films, the camera is an active presence: goading the murderers to boastful confession, or else protecting the subject from possible retribution. “Both my films are interventions in which the film-making process itself generates the primary drama,” says Oppenheimer, who points to Jean Rouch, the originator of cinéma-vérité, whose films — including Moi, un Noir (1958) and The Human Pyramid (1961) — ask the participants to act out their own lives for the camera.
“The first thing that happens when you point a camera at someone is they start to stage themselves,” says Oppenheimer. “The film-maker usually has a choice. Do I try and get past that self-consciousness as quickly as possible — so they are acting quote-unquote ‘naturally’ — or do I record the fact that they are trying to stage themselves? It becomes a kind of excavation. We live in a time when we are constantly staging ourselves and our friends for anonymous others on social media, who we hope will admire us or follow us. We’re constantly performing.”
Nevertheless, it is perhaps telling that in both The Act of Killing and The Man Who Saved the World, a departure from strict fly-on-the-wall methods was necessary, or went hand-in-hand with the task of overcoming the resistance of subjects hardened by repressive regimes in the Soviet Union and Indonesia. Vérité turns out to be a poor tool for penetrating ideology. “It’s like an onion”, is how Peter Anthony describes the process of trying to unravel the grumpy and frequently drunk Colonel Petrov. “You want to peel off all these layers and get to the middle.” And what did he find? At times reluctant to act out conversations for the cameras, Petrov gradually warmed to the process. Indeed, according to one of the film’s producers, Jakob Staberg, after spending some time with a German experimental theatre troupe, who heard of Petrov’s story and took him on tour with them as part of an anti-war theatre piece, “[Petrov]came back very different.
“Before, he would shoot a scene and complain, ‘I’m not an actor’, when he thought Peter was being too demanding. After he came back from playing theatre, he would say, ‘OK Peter, now my character, I would say this . . .’ and have long discussions about how he should pronounce different words. His late wife used to be a projectionist screening 35mm films in a military base. He loved going to the movies. Maybe that’s one of the reasons he became a part of our film. He got to be the star of his own movie. The Russian actor playing him as a young man said, ‘His acting is better than mine.’ He had tears in his eyes.”
As such, Petrov’s “performance” owes less, perhaps, to the methodologically precise films of Jean Rouch and more to Audie Murphy, the teenage US soldier who in January 1945 secured himself the congressional medal of honour by mounting the burning carcass of a tank and gunning down a phalanx of Germans, and then acted it out again in cinemascope for Universal’s 1955 film about his exploits, To Hell and Back. The film, which recreated the beaches of Anzio, Italy, and the battlegrounds of Sicily and Germany in Washington state, is little watched today, although Murphy haunts Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds in the form of the (fictional) character of Fredrick Zoller, a German sniper obliged to star in a biopic of his own life produced by Joseph Goebbels.
One thinks, too, of the 1930 film People on Sunday, in which Berliners played themselves in a drama based on their own lives, or Roberto Rossellini’s resistance drama, Rome, Open City (1945), filmed in the still-smouldering ruins of bombed-out Rome, featuring sequences that, in the words of critic James Agee, were “as shatteringly uninvented-looking as if they had been shot by invisible newsreel cameras”. Many mistook it for a documentary about the real thing.
“The line is always blurry,” says Errol Morris, whose classic 1988 documentary The Thin Blue Line uncovered the wrongful death sentence passed on a Texas drifter by means of a series of meticulous Philip-Glass-scored re-enactments, and is widely seen as the film that moved away from the vérité-like methods dominating America’s direct-cinema movement in the 1970s, and opened the creative toolbox for documentary film-makers thereafter. “When I started out, this idea that you have a greater claim on truth because you are hand-holding the camera, or not lighting anything, struck me as abhorrent. Style does not guarantee truth. Nothing guarantees truth. Truth is a quest. You are being given evidence and being asked to assess that evidence, and there is more and more evidence out there. To me, the watershed moment was [the 2004 prisoner abuse scandal] Abu Ghraib, because you have soldiers recording images with cellphones, or small digital cameras, and those images — because of the internet — could be sent around the world instantly. Not just one copy but an unlimited number of copies. I’m always fascinated by the fact that the commanding officer tried to collect all the photographs and burn them. He was completely missing the point. We are in the 21st century.”
In other words, everyone is a master of vérité now. In the age of Donald Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns” and Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness”, the documentary film-maker, confronted with the ubiquity of reality TV and CCTV imagery, must own up to the inherent artfulness of the documentary form — the manipulative intent behind every camera — in order to interrogate the fictions by which we live, or else be caught peddling them uncritically. Re-enact by all means, but above all, be transparent about it. “Anything goes,” says Morris. “I don’t think there should be any limit on. I think it should be unfettered but the underlying goal should be the pursuit of truth.” What truth that turns out to be — dramatic, documentary, shocking, redemptive, or some mixture therein — remains up to the talent and inclination of the film-maker.
Colonel Petrov hasn’t seen The Man who Saved the World yet, but his living conditions have vastly improved thanks to a string of awards from Germany — the German Media Award in 2011, the Dresden peace prize in 2013 — and occasional bundles of cash sent to him, via a fixer, from the film-makers. “He doesn’t trust the banks,” says Anthony. “He’s had a hard life. He’s 75 now. He goes up and down. He has good days and bad days. But they’ve started to celebrate him in Russia now. Before, most Russians didn’t know he existed.”
‘The Man Who Saved the World’ is on release in the UK now
Photographs: Juliet Butler/Alamy; Henrik Saxgren; Lee Celano/Corbis