Is animation as a medium of non-fiction becoming ubiquitous? That was one of the many questions I was asking myself after a screening of Khodorkovsky. The film is flawed and chaotic, in part because the filmmaker Cyril Tuschi seems to have approached the topic of whether imprisoned Russian businessman Mikhail Khodorkovky is guilty of fraud and tax evasion or just got on the wrong side of Putin as a documentary pick ‘n’ mix. From elegiac landscape shots to filmmaker voice-over and Broomfield-style reflexivity, from talking-heads interviews to archive material, even to a few moments that feel staged or re-enacted, all the familiar techniques and approaches to documentary filmmaking are in there. Thrown in with these old, familiar favourites is a minute or two of animation.
The animation nods its head, stylistically, to Waltz with Bashir. This reminded me of a comment made by The Green Wave director Ali Samadi Ahadi at a screening in Edinburgh last summer that the German broadcaster ARTE, who put up funding for his film, pushed them towards a Waltz-like animation style (Khodorkovsky is also German funded). But, it has little of the thematic relevance and depth of Ari Folman’s trippy memory piece. Perhaps the negative-effect black-and-white images, in which Khodorkovsky remains blank-eyed and impenetrable is meant to mirror the filmmaker’s (and audience’s) lack of access to this character. But, that’s as much significance as I can mine out of the use of animation in this film. Animated ‘interjections’ as I’ve called them before, have been popping up in film for decades and decades. Sometimes as a means of explanation (charts, maps, etc), sometimes as a means of comedic irony and observation (the South Park-style history of America in Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine and the link between colonialism, capitalism and the depletion of natural resources [which is amazing and you can watch it here] in The Age of Stupid, for example), but I’ve always read these interjections as pointed and purposeful. Is animation now becoming so ubiquitous in documentary that it’s just another part of the post-observational documentary style that we are familiar with from most mainstream TV and Film docs, something that’s no more noteworthy than talking heads and fly-on-the-wall filming?