A documentary alleging that behind the scenes of the Winter Olympics in Sochi lies greed, extortion and environmental damage is screened for the first time on Sunday
When the Russians knocked on her door for the third time, Simone Baumann knew that the safest course of action was not to answer.
Ms Baumann, 50, had already turned down an offer of £600,000 not to show her controversial film, detailing the corruption involved in building the Sochi Winter Olympic Village. The offer was double the budget required to make the documentary. And the third time they approached her, she refused to meet them.
“In a society where they think they can buy anything — and usually can — if you ask for a price, you are already a buyer,” she said, explaining her refusal to enter into negotiations to sell her film to the Russian authorities. “You must never ask the price. I simply told him that I was not interested and walked away.”
On Sunday night the film that Ms Baumann produced, and that the Russians tried so hard to block, will be screened for the first time. It features a building contractor who was threatened he would be “drowned in blood” if he refused to pay kickbacks of up to 50 per cent of building costs in Sochi, plus the cost of the Olympics to local people who have lost their homes and livelihoods to construction. It also highlights the environmental damage of the games, and questions the wisdom of building the venues on a swampy, sub tropical coastal plain.
“We had permission for all the filming we did in Russia, in Sochi and Moscow, and have no obligation to show it to anyone before tonight’s premiere,” said Ms Baumann, speaking to The Sunday Telegraph from her home in the German town of Leipzig. Along with Alexander Gentelev, the Tel Aviv-based director, Ms Baumann spent two years researching and filming Putin’s Games.
“The film is a co-production between Germany, Austria and Israel and has no Russian money behind it,” she said, explaining her reasons for not allowing the authorities to see the film.
Pressure from Russian authorities on the producers of the feature-length documentary, directed by Russian-born Israeli émigré Mr Gentelev, 54, began last April after the film won a “best project” award at an international television trade market in Cannes. Alerted by Russian journalists who wrote about the project, which was then in post-production, the Russian Olympic Committee and public television stations demanded copies of a brief trailer and show reel.
Ms Baumann, who studied at a southern Russian university in the 1980s and later taught “dialectical materialism” — a Marxist philosophical theory — at East Berlin’s Humboldt University before the fall of the Berlin Wall, ignored them.
She was then approached by someone she knew to have close contacts with Russian officials going back to Soviet times — and refused to meet him.
Such was the displeasure of the International Olympic Committee when it heard of it that it refused to allow the use of the word “Olympic” in the title, or the use of any archived Olympic footage. They also wrote accusing the producers of making a “politically motivated” hatchet-job.
If the Kremlin cannot get a ticket for tonight’s world premiere at Amsterdam’s IDFA, a leading international showcase for documentary film, its officials will have the chance closer to home on Dec 6 when the film is screened at Moscow’s ArtDoc Film Festival, run by acclaimed Russian documentary-maker Vitaly Mansky — a colleague of Ms Baumann.
They may not like what they see.
The producers insist the film contains only firmly-established facts, and is balanced with comments from Anatoly Pakhomov, the mayor of Sochi and a Putin-regime loyalist. However, it contains a key sequence in which construction magnate Valery Morozov reveals the greed, extortion and terrifying threats that eventually forced him to flee with his family to Britain, where he is now living in hiding and has applied for asylum.
“We received explicit threats: ‘You’ll be soaked with blood; drowned in blood,'” he said. “It was very straightforward. We know the history. Russia generally does not care much for human life.”
His complaints, that the levels of extortion — which shot up from as little as a negotiated three per cent kickback when construction first began in 2008 to as much as 50 per cent later — were destroying his business, fell on deaf ears.
When he testified against officials who had attempted to extort £4 million from him, their patience ran out. In December 2011, after a major tax investigation was ordered into his business, fearing for his life and that of his wife and children, he fled Russia.
Mr Morozov, 59, is now working with other Russians that have fallen foul of Mr Putin’s regime and are living in self-imposed exile in London. They hope to expose corruption in his regime through what they call the International Anti-corruption Committee.
His detailed description of how the corruption works to channel money back up to the Kremlin goes a long way to explaining why Mr Putin’s games, costing an estimated £31 billion, are the most expensive Olympics ever.
“We started building a project in Primorskoe,” said Mr Morozov, referring to beachside area of Sochi. “It was a wing of the Sochi Presidential Resort Home. The contract came to 2.5 billion roubles (£47m).
“There was an official who wanted to be bribed. You pay him a commission or else. I call it a ‘corruption tax’. I should have paid him 12 per cent and an additional five per cent, but managed to get it down to three.”
He goes on to describe in detail how the money is paid directly into the Kremlin’s coffers.
“It works like this: the money is brought to the Presidential Administration Department. I go to the fifth floor, pass through security without being screened, and leave the money.”
Mr Morozov, who had long run a successful construction business in Sochi, described how bribes went through the roof when the city and region was declared an Olympic venue. Dozens of major building contracts were issued through Olympstroy, the Russian government-owned body responsible for organising and building the Winter Olympics.
Olympstroy, with its 40 different departments, has more personal chauffeurs for its senior bosses than last year’s London summer Olympics organising committee had on its staff of 32, he said. With high-powered officials involved in building projects — backed by an Olympic law that allows the compulsory purchase and, in some cases outright confiscation of property — it became a free-for-all, Mr Morozov says.
One chinovnik — the Russian slang for a senior official — was told the “going rate” for bribes was five per cent, then asked: “What if it were 50 per cent?”
Mr Morozov added: “I realised he was being serious.”
The money thrown around by the Kremlin to ensure that Russia was awarded the games is also revealed in the film.
Karl Schranz, a former Austrian Olympic skiing champion and personal adviser to Mr Putin on bringing the Olympics to Sochi, talks about the big-money lobbying that went into the games — cash that Leonid Tyagetschev, the former head of Russia’s Olympic Committee, said was “practically unlimited.”
The money was used to lobby for Sochi and against Salzburg, which was also in the running before, in 2007, the International Olympic Committee to give the games to Russia.
The film also features key critics, including leading opposition figures Boris Nemtsov and Garry Kasparov.
No officials from the presidential administration, Olympstroy or government ministries agreed to be interviewed; a mid-ranking official from the federal office for budgetary control told the filmmakers there was no evidence of corruption.
“Sochi today is a microcosm of Russia. Corruption is everywhere,” said Mr Gentelev, the film’s director. “Every leader has a mega-project. For Putin it is the Sochi Olympics.”
And how did a subtropical Black Sea resort with little snow become a winter Olympic venue, in a country with a Siberian hinterland much better suited to cold weather sports?
“Putin likes Sochi, he likes skiing there,” Ms Baumann said. “He is building his own palace down there. It is his personal choice and he is completely behind it.”
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