Of Caravan and the Dogs

in 64th Krakow Film Festival (Docs and Shorts)

by Živa Emeršič

The film starts with images full of joy and pride: in 2021, the chief editor of Moscow’s liberal newspaper Novaya Gazeta Dmitry Muratov received the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the journalists of this paper, six of whom were killed for conducting investigations on government corruption, crimes and violation of the law. In his acceptance speech, Dmitry Muratov compares journalism with dogs barking at a caravan. The caravan goes on, but the dogs keep barking. Throughout the film, this old Arabic saying turns to bitter truth in Putin’s Russia, with one catastrophic difference: the dogs finally stop barking. Independent journalism is dead.

At the beginning of the invasion in Ukraine, Russian independent media kept the hope to continue objective reporting while resisting government pressure. At the same time, the experienced Russian opposition suspected that Putin would suppress all critical voices in the country. The question hanging like the sword of Damocles above their heads was:  when and how would it happen? Their choices opened dilemmas between bad and worse, choosing between emigration, censorship or self-censorship, but as it turned out, choosing the lesser of numerous evils is still choosing evil.

With wide access to the newspaper’s inner space, thanks to an anonymous source, Of Caravan and the Dogs follows a large and determined group of independent journalists of Novaya Gazeta whose criticism of the war in Ukraine is threatened day after day under Putin’s escalating harsh legislation curtailing freedom of expression and speech. Structured around a countdown to the “Special Operation in Ukraine”, the film intercuts dramatic meetings of newspaper staff with footage of Russian police ransacking media offices, televised broadcasts by Putin, large-scale public protests in Russia, and first-to-be-seen footage from Ukraine. The film reveals the ordinary people behind the masks of brave professionals, torn by personal dilemmas and choices that might prove dangerous or even fatal not only for themselves but for their families and their loved ones. The narrative brings a powerful exploration of these first days, weeks, and months of the escalating war and of the Russian people living under similarly escalating state repression. Although the situation is all but safe, Muratov keeps a newsroom running in accordance with the will of the staff. The dramaturgy reaches its peak when the situation under the new military censorship criminalizing journalism as a profession threatens journalists with severe punishment. For example, for the evidence presented in this film, the authors face up to fifteen years in prison.  Muratov and his staff experience the horror as the situation in Russia deteriorates day by day. The Supreme Court dissolves the international human rights organization “Memorial”. The remaining independent media start vanishing. At one point, they find themselves standing alone in the devastated media landscape and the time for a final decision is close, or they already have missed the moment for a safe retreat.

Using official and non-official narratives, director Askold Kurov led an anonymous team of authors as they document the dramatic weeks surrounding the invasion of Ukraine. Kurov, who was born in Uzbekistan, has made some critical films about the social and political situation in Russia, which resulted in his exile in Turkey. This time, he managed to organize a group of collaborators, including co-scriptwriters and editors under the name Anonymous 1. They are independent journalists and filmmakers still living in Russia under constant threat of discovery, trying to document life in the country under Putin’s dictatorship.

Of Caravan and the Dogs is a strong and compelling documentary film with a clear message, without ever falling into the trap of cheap political propaganda. There’s no big words or pompous bravery, just ordinary people committed to their belief in democracy and justice. The seemingly simple narrative turns out to be smartly crafted and edited in a pace that piles up the horror of events. By the end, the film shows another ceremony of a Nobel Peace Prize in 2022, this time for “Memorial”, which was liquidated that same year for an alleged breach of the notorious »Foreign Agent« Law.

Is there a ray of light in the darkness? Hardly. But people like Muratow, Kurow, and other brave journalists and filmmakers keep the weak torch of hope lit. The truth will eventually prevail.

P.S. Dmitry Muratow sold his Nobel Peace Prize medal at an international auction for the benefit of Ukrainian refugees. The medal sold for over US$103 million, the highest price ever recorded for a Nobel medal.

Živa Emeršič
Edited by Birgit Beumers