Friday, May 07, 2010

Thieves By Law Can Chill Viewers On Different Levels
Having previously read articles and watched television shows about the Russian mafia made me interested in seeing Thieves By Law as part of the Canadian International Documentary Festival this week. While corruption in the former Soviet Union is commonly acknowledged, this film's examination of three gangsters and their cronies showed me how frighteningly widespread, accepted and legitimized it is.
"Show me one person in Russia who doesn't have a criminal record," challenges one of the subjects, who describes himself as a businessman. Largely uneducated, having spent as much or more time in prison than in school, these three men aren't afraid of revealing things to writer/director Alexander Gentelev that make you question why they're still not living behind bars instead of in luxury through wealth gained via extortion and violence.
Want an example of how violent these guys can get? Start by abducting a homeless person. Then you dress him in a suit and take him to the office of an executive targeted for protection money collection, where his head is cut off on the spot to show what happens to people who don't pay up.
Yet these men also claim to live by an honourable thieves code, which began in Stalin-era gulags in the 1930s, and continued until Mikhail Gorbachev put perestroika in effect in 1987. Money — big money — could now be made. And to my eyes, at least, that moral code seemed to be hit as hard as the victims of the criminal groups that sprang up during this time.
Gang wars throughout the '90s wiped out many mafia soldiers and leaders before survivors realized that large profits could still be made without all of the bloodshed through the influence they'd attained with businesses, the government, police and the church.
An Interpol agent, mafia lawyer and Russia's first millionaire are also interviewed in the film, along with some lower-ranking thieves by law, but it's the three main protagonists who really drive this documentary. And aside from the one who's now making a theatrical film, which includes footage of his actual victims being beaten up to add realism, they seem likable at times.
That can be almost as scary in a personal sense as realizing the power that men like this wield on the global stage.
Thieves By Law is 90 minutes long and in Russian, French and Hebrew, with English subtitles. It will receive a second Hot Docs screening at 10 p.m. on Sat. May 8 at Toronto's Isabel Bader Theatre.

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