I had given up on new Russian film. The movies are so consistently poor that I could no longer force myself to watch them, let alone write about them. The eXile just doesn't compensate me enough for those kinds of damages. But last week I was roped into seeing 12, the new critically acclaimed film by Nikita Mikhalkov.
You might remember Mikhalkov's 1992 Oscar-winning anti-Stalinist drama Burnt By The Sun. The world thought his sentimental depiction of Stalin's purges was brilliant. Little did it know that he liberally plagiarized it from a much better Russian film called Zavtra Byla Viona (Tomorrow There Was War). Mikhalkov even used the name of a song from the original film for his film's title; signaling either extreme laziness, total lack of imagination, or a I-don't-give-a-fuck-if-you-know brazenness.
His latest film is a remake of a 1957 American Civil Rights-era classic Twelve Angry Men. Incredibly, it attempts to absolve Russians of their principle sin, the sin of corruption, by painting it in a positive light.
Aside from an important twist in the end, 12 is a one-for-one copy of the original. For those that haven't seen Twelve Angry Men, the film depicts an all-white jury deciding a murder case in which a black kid is accused of stabbing his father to death. Despite shaky evidence and a weak case, the majority of the jurors want the kid to fry. The rest of the film centers on one dissenting juror who takes it upon himself to uncover the prejudice of the 11 other jury members. He pleads with them to base the verdict on the merits of the case rather than skin color. After heated debates and a succession of Come-to-Jesus moments, each jury member comes face to face with his own prejudices and is converted. In the end, the kid is acquitted.
In Twelve Angry Men, the accused is a scrawny, Chicano-looking kid. In 12, the kid is Chechen and the jury is made up of ethnic Slavs. To Russify the plot a bit, Mikhalkov threw in a shady apartment ownership scandal, which the jury somehow manages to uncover. As it turned out, the kid's father was killed for his apartment by some developers. The Chechen was innocent.
It's not immediately clear why Mikhalkov chose to remake a 50-year-old American courtroom drama about race relations to make his pro-corruption point. Set and produced at the start of the Civil Rights Movement, Twelve Angry Men had a message relevant to its times: Don't send people to jail just because they're black. More broadly, the film was an appeal for Americans to hold The Law above their own personal prejudices. Reminding them that the very existence of a democracy depended on it. This idea has as much relevance for American courts today as it did half a century ago. In the context of Russia's criminal justice system, it makes no sense.
Jury trials have presented a peculiar problem for Russia's courts ever since they were reintroduced on a limited scale in 1993. With juries calling the shots, prosecutors have found it extremely difficult to get a conviction, no matter how watertight a case was. Even despite overwhelming evidence, Russian juries have tended to side with the criminal, handing out acquittals at an astronomical rate. While race is an issue, it's not the overarching problem when it comes to juries. Russian juries seem to acquit without too much thought about ethnicity. You have a good chance of beating the charges if you're Chechen, Jewish or Slavic.
It's not just a matter of incompetent prosecutors, payoffs or jury intimidation (although all of these probably play some part). Acquittals have been Russia's MO ever since Alexander II signed jury trials into law back in 1864. From then on, suspicion of authority and the glamorization of The Outlaw trumped even the strongest prejudices. Case-in-point: In 1913, despite widespread anti-Semitic sentiment, an all-Christian jury acquitted a Ukrainian Jew on trial for the ritual murder of a 13-year-old boy. The jury believed the police were manipulating the testimony of the main witness.