Psst, have you heard? Russia is sowing divisiveness in an effort to sway voters, or worse. But this time the target isn’t a coming election but the Oscars, according to one of two filmmakers whose documentaries have been nominated for Academy Awards and drawn the ire of President Vladimir V. Putin.
That filmmaker, Feras Fayyad, spent nearly two years with several members of the White Helmets, the volunteer Syrian emergency medical workers, as they pulled survivors, bodies and severed limbs from mountains of rubble left by airstrikes.
He said that malignment of his film “Last Men in Aleppo” began soon after its premiere last year at Sundance, where it won a grand jury prize, and has only intensified since. In the Russian media, Mr. Fayyad has been accused of being a Western-funded propagandist whose film is a thinly disguised “Al-Qaeda promotional vehicle.” And, in what might catch members of the academy’s documentary branch by surprise, the film’s Oscar nomination was, according to Russia Insider, clear evidence that “the Hollywood celebrity industry is now an integral part of the U.S. state’s propaganda machine.”
“They just keep attacking you, accusing you,” Mr. Fayyad said during an interview last week at an Airbnb rental in the West Village. “And the people who work with me, my team, I don’t want them accused or attacked because of me.”
The best documentary nominees inevitably bring a blast of reality to the Oscars, as their subjects often face very real mortal threats. But it is pretty rare for two contenders to grapple with an au courant vexation shared by many, though plainly not all, Americans: fear of Russian meddling.
Bryan Fogel and the team behind the Oscar nominated-documentary “Icarus,” about Russia’s doping program for athletes, have also spent this awards season, and many, many months preceding it, looking out for Russian threats.
The subject of Mr. Fogel’s film, Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, the former director of Russia’s antidoping lab, is in hiding in the United States after exposing a state-sponsored program that ensured that Russian athletes using banned substances would evade detection at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. While Russia has denied any such scheme, Dr. Rodchenkov’s claims were independently verified and led to the ban on Russia at the 2018 Winter Olympics.
During the course of filming, Mr. Fogel changed the location of his production office four times, used burner phones to thwart surveillance attempts, edited the film on hard drives rather than a hackable server, and moved Dr. Rodchenkov to four different safe houses. As Dr. Rodchenkov prepared to go public with what he knew, two of his fellow Russian antidoping officials died unexpectedly within less than two weeks of each other.
In an email, James Walden, Dr. Rodchenkov’s lawyer, said his client was regularly being moved to undisclosed locations because of death threats, and Mr. Fogel said he hadn’t seen him in a year.
“I worry about him, and I know that all of us who worked so hard to protect him worry,” Mr. Fogel said.
Russia’s campaign against its former prized chemist continues. In recent months, the government said it would press for Dr. Rodchenkov’s extradition (though Russia has no such agreement with the United States), a top Russian Olympic official said he ought to be shot, and Mr. Putin described the whistle-blower as an idiot under American control. A defamation lawsuit was also filed against Dr. Rodchenkov this week, backed by Mikhail D. Prokhorov, the Russian oligarch who owns the Brooklyn Nets.
Andrew Weiss, a Russia expert in the Clinton White House who is now with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that smear campaigns, buttressed by social media attacks, have become part of the standard operating procedure deployed by Russia against perceived enemies.
“Russia has a pretty good record on shaping the narrative, of creating a party line and reinforcing it from a variety of vantage points,” Mr. Weiss said.
Given the evidence and the Olympic ban, he was skeptical that Russia could reframe the narrative around state-sponsored doping by attacking Dr. Rodchenkov, but he said that he and his protectors were “right to be nervous”: Mr. Putin’s critics have met with sudden and violent deaths.
Nor was Russia’s campaign against the White Helmets a surprise, considering the country’s backing of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, in the vicious and protracted civil war, said Anthony H. Cordesman, a national security analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The White Helmets group “does serve in opposition areas and its work inherently benefits the forces that Russia opposes,” Mr. Cordesman wrote in an email.
Allegations against the White Helmets have been increasing, with the Russian news site RT accusing the group of having terrorist affiliations and plotting a chemical weapons “provocation.” Such claims have been discredited by Middle East experts, among them Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, who said accusations that the White Helmets were linked to ISIS or Al Qaeda were “patently absurd” and “puerile.”
“RT-led disinformation campaigns on matters like this operate on another level to reality,” Mr. Lister wrote in an email. “There’s only one motivation here: to justify the indiscriminate bombing campaigns that have come to exemplify Russia and the Syrian regime’s day-to-day war.”
Mr. Fayyad said he had been repeatedly trolled on social media sites. After the film was shown in Davos, Switzerland, one of Google’s top articles about the screening was a hit piece on the Russian news site Sputnik, according to a screenshot taken by his team. It might be a stretch to assume that academy voters are paying much mind to Russian news sites, but Mr. Fayyad believes that detractors, in their fervor to discredit the White Helmets, are also aiming to derail his film’s Oscar chances, something he is trying to offset by sounding the alarm.
Mr. Fayyad is from the countryside outside Aleppo and, in March 2011, was working on another film, about the 1982 massacre in the city of Hama, when Syria’s civil uprising began. Mr. Fayyad was arrested — he was accused of spreading false news, he said — imprisoned and tortured. (His nails were ripped out, he was shackled and hung by his hands from a ceiling, and sensitive parts of his body were shocked with electricity, he said.)
For all the horrors he suffered, Mr. Fayyad was struck by his fellow prisoners’ resistance and determination to survive, and how they buoyed each other by singing songs in the lowest of voices. Nearly a year later, he emerged wanting to make a film that showed how people endured in the teeth of war, and clung to the tiniest glimmers of solace and hope.
“I didn’t want to tell the story of the White Helmets; I wanted to tell the story about these people as citizens of their society,” Mr. Fayyad said. But accompanying the men on their gruesome rescue missions took a harrowing toll. “It kills something inside you,” he said. “We made a film about our nightmare.”
While the film’s producer and assistant director were recently denied visas to attend the Academy Awards, Mr. Fayyad could take comfort in the fact that the White Helmets have already received the endorsement of the academy; last year, a short documentary about the group landed an Oscar. It would be something if another film about the White Helmets won, though the lighthearted “Faces Places” is currently the favorite. In the end, we will probably never know whether Russians will manage to sway academy voters. Perhaps naïvely, the Bagger’s guess is nyet.
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