Rings of the World, the official film about the 2014 Olympics, is directed by renowned Russian documentarian Sergei Miroshnichenko. The film on the extravagant event is the most expensive non-fiction film in Russian history.
The Sochi Olympic Games have beaten all world records as the most extravagant in the history of the Olympic Games. The numbers look grand. The official figure is 214 billion rubles, of which 100 billion came from the government and the rest from private investors. Russia’s Prime Minister Medvedev explained that this amount (approximately 6.4 billion dollars) was spent directly on the organization of the Games, whereas a total sum of around 50 billion dollars was spent on infrastructure. In an interview with CNN, Dmitry Medvedev declared that he considers the amount reasonable, given that it’s a question of developing the whole region.
Prior to Sochi, the most expensive Olympic Games, at 43 billion dollars, was held in Beijing in 2008. In the case of China, the largest expenditure went towards solving infrastructure problems, which not only included construction of the new facilities, but also the transfer of old industrial companies outside the urban area. For comparison, let’s take a look at the cost of the previous Olympic Games: One notorious example is the Olympics held in Montreal in 1976. The Games cost Canada 1.5 billion dollars, which took 30 years to pay off. During planning of the Summer Olympics in London in 2012, the UK authorities initially planned to spend 4.5 billion dollars, however final expenses came to 19 billion dollars, for which the organizers of the Games have repeatedly been criticized.
The fact that the Sochi Olympics may be associated with large-scale corruption has been the subject of debate amongst many experts. In 2013 the Russian opposition leaders Boris Nemtsov and Leonid Martynyuk published an independent report that stated that during the International Olympic Committee (IOC) sessions in Guatemala, Vladimir Putin said that the Olympics would cost the country 12 billion dollars. One should note, however, in reality the costs always exceed the projected amount by approximately two times during actual construction. The cost of the previous Winter Games in Vancouver increased from 2.88 billion to 6 billion dollars. The amount spent on the Games in Sochi, however, grew by more than four times. But these substantial figures were provided mainly to businessmen and companies close to President Putin. The Accounts Chamber of the Russian Federation is obliged to control government spending. However, most data on Olympic expenditures was not disclosed publicly. The delegate of the Duma, Dmitry Gudkov, sent an inquiry to the Accounts Chamber of Russia, but, as the report states, the Chamber just gave him a formal answer.
Making documentaries about the Olympics is a long-lived tradition. Among the filmmakers that directed films on the Olympics, are such acclaimed directors as Leni Riefenstahl, Kon Ichikawa, Yuri Ozerov, Claude Lelouch, Milos Forman, and Arthur Penn. The Sochi Olympics was no exception.
Sergei Miroshnichenko, Laureate of the State Prize of the Russian Federation, and curator of the documentary program at the Moscow International Film Festival, was chosen to direct the film about the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. The film with the working title Rings of the World is considered to be the most costly in the history of Russian non-fiction cinema.
The tradition of making films on the Olympics dates to 1904. Today, the commissioning of an Olympic film and the selection of a director lies within the competence of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Miroshnichenko is known for creating compelling portraits of very different public personas, ranging from Vladimir Putin to Alexander Solzhenitsyn. In the late 1980s, Miroshnichenko took part in the BBC project, 7Up. The series traces the lives of the protagonists over decades, paying them a visit every seven years. Miroshnichenko has already directed four episodes and believes that it is precisely this work that influenced the decision of the IOC. In 2012, the fourth part of the project entitled Born in the USSR was screened in nearly three dozen countries.
Despite the fact that the IOC has the deciding power over the choice of director, they are not financing Rings of the World. The project is funded by the Ministry of Culture, the Russian Federal Agency on Press and Mass Communications, the public TV channel, as well as by private international companies. The costs were to be partially covered by selling the broadcasting and media rights to other countries.
The budget of Rings of the World amounts to 3 million dollars, which by Russian standards is unprecedented. It is the most expensive project in the history of Russian non-fiction and Russian documentary filmmakers have never dealt with such big production budgets. The average budget for a feature-length non-fiction film in Russia is around fifty- to one hundred-thousand dollars. Some projects are partially or fully funded by the state through the Ministry of Culture, while others are non-fiction productions for television funded by the TV channels themselves. This type of production, however, is almost entirely associated with the notion of “propaganda,” hence discussing it in terms of art is bizarre, to say the least.
In the given situation, a budget of 3 million dollars for a film is rather hypocritical even if the Ministry of Culture did contribute only a modest part of the amount. However, to his colleagues Miroshnichenko’s hands are clean. According to the director, he asked the Ministry of Culture about funds allocated for making a fiction film, not a documentary.
One can assume that a film about Putin’s “baby” would be a priori propaganda. But all kinds of people have been working on Rings of the World. Ilya Demutsky, for instance, is the composer of the film. He used excerpts from the court speeches of Pussy Riot member Maria Alekhina and set them to music, a composition for which he received a prestigious award in the WHAT competition in Bologna, Italy. While working in Sochi, Miroshnichenko made a film for television, entitled Philosophy of the Soft Path (literal translation from the Russian), almost half of which consisted of an interview with President Putin. Maybe it was then that he paid his “propaganda dues,” and then decided to play a subtler game in Rings of the World. The cost of the Games and the possible large-scale corruption associated with the preparation for the Olympics has been the subject of a heated debate within Russia and abroad. The Russian opposition even issued a special report on corruption in Sochi.
The film is not yet finished. Nevertheless, everyone is already wondering whether the film, commissioned by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), will touch upon the subject of the unprecedented costs of the Olympic Games in Sochi.
Miroshnichenko decided not to deal with this unpleasant topic. In an interview with DOX, he explains his position:
How would you describe Rings of the World
It is a reflection on what outstanding athletes devote their lives to, and how male and female balance changes towards a stronger female presence in sports. There are in fact extreme kinds of sports, to which women did not have access for a long time. For instance, the ski jump, which women were trying to get into for years, or hockey, which becomes more exciting every year.
At the heart of Rings of the World lies the philosophy of sports and memories of the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Pierre de Coubertin, which, by the way, were not published in our country. He preferred not to translate the common phrase “Mens sana in corpore sano” in the traditional way as “A sound mind in a healthy body” but as “A sharp mind in a dynamic body.” It creates an entirely different meaning, doesn’t it? We wanted to explore the possibilities of the body, but at the same time the athlete’s ability to keep his mind sound from becoming a Nietzschean hero, a Superman.
I have watched a few Olympic films. Most of them were mere reports. But as soon as there was a style, a stance, or a tone, the film became epic. One such film I consider to be epic is Claude Lelouch’s novella Visions of Eight, about the 1972 Summer Games in Munich, Germany.
Tell us about your team and the work on the film. When should we expect the premiere?
Approximately 80% of the film is already shot. Prior to the Games, we had travelled around the world and filmed outstanding athletes in their preparations for the Olympics. We met Patrick Chan, Sidney Crosby, Pavel Datsyuk, and a few other accomplished sportsmen. We also filmed the Olympic torch relay. We left for Sochi only in mid-January.
There were 56 people on my team. The cameramen were Russian. I wanted to invite Polish, Swedish, and British colleagues, as the film academies in those countries are exceptionally good; I have a great respect for them, especially the Polish. But at some point I realized that I must give a chance to my countrymen and gathered a group of Russian professionals. It was hard work: some managed, others had to leave. Some of them proved to be outstanding professionals.
Filming sports was extremely challenging. Modern aesthetics suggests mostly shooting with a wide lens and an autofocus on small cameras. There wasn’t anyone able to shoot dynamic footage with telephoto optics.
Moreover, I was faced with the complete degradation of Russian documentary cinema production. We had to send an inquiry to Canon to provide us with cameras from Europe just to get 18 cameras to work. Besides, there was no quality telephoto optics in Russia, and those needed to be ordered from outside, as well. We did not have any post-production capacities since all relevant studios have been destroyed! When Yuri Ozerov was making his film about the Olympics in 1980 O, Sport – You’re the World, he heavily relied upon the studios in Riga, Leningrad, and Moscow; the whole State machine was working for him. I worked as a private entrepreneur and was faced with exceedingly high costs. There is still more to be shot, but editing has already begun. Hopefully, everything will be ready by August. Of course, I would like to show the film at the festival, for example, in Venice.
Was the film commissioned by the IOC or by the Russian Organizing Committee “Sochi 2014”?
All official Olympic films are commissioned by the IOC and are the property of the IOC. But, of course, an Olympic film has a relation to the country that hosts the Games. The IOC approached the Russian Organizing Committee with the proposal to make a film. Then, I assume, they proposed and discussed the candidates. As a result, they confirmed my candidacy. I think that was due to the fact that my previous film Born in the USSR is widely known to the public.
The film Rings of the World cost about 3 million dollars and was funded entirely by the Russian side. Expenses are proportionally divided between the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Press, the public Russian TV channel, and by the Vnesheconombank.
Did the IOC set any terms and conditions?
Yes, some terms and conditions were imposed by the IOC. They have a strict ideology of tolerance and equal treatment of all athletes and all countries. There were restrictions as well. The IOC recommended not filming the athletes whose moral qualities, as the Committee believed, did not comply with the ideology of the Olympics.
Are you referring to the use of doping?
It includes doping issues, yes. But it also refers to the exclusion of athletes, who have expressed views that contradict the ideology of the IOC. But let me not give away any names. The IOC is a serious organization. They take things very seriously. For example, when I offered to film on video, they immediately said that they need it on film. According to them, the digital technology has not yet been tested by time. For the IOC, 10-15 years is not long enough. They store these films for centuries.
You are aware of the criticism of the Sochi Olympics as an extraordinarily expensive project. Do you deal with this issue inRings of the World
First of all, I know the data. And, unlike others, I know how much was actually spent by the State and how much was invested by private businesses. The government spent less. And I do not want to count private money.
Do you agree with the figure announced by Prime Minister Medvedev? According to him, the sum of about 50 billion dollars was spent on the organization of the Olympics in Sochi, of which around 6.4 billion dollars (200 billion rubles) was spent directly on the preparations for the Games.
Dmitry Medvedev gave one number, Vladimir Putin another. I know one thing – there was less public money than private. For example, out of all private investors, Vladimir Potanin invested the most – 87 billion rubles. But it was his private money, and I do not have the habit of counting the money in someone else’s pocket. He built what he wanted to utilize in the future. He figured it all out. And I do not think that Vladimir Potanin is an idiot. I do not think that Viktor Vekselberg is an idiot either.
Critics say that the private investors were forced to invest in the Sochi Olympics under State pressure.
Not Potanin. He actually said that the idea of investing in the Olympics was his; he fought for it. I think he built a resort so that his employees could later go there for vacation.
You see, I read the criticism, but I did not engage in the investigation of corruption. That was not the task of the official film. Would you want me to sit Mikhail Prokhorov in front of the camera and ask him about who stole what? Does one need such an Olympic film? Who is going to watch it? In a half century, the viewer will be interested in whether Chan, Crosby, or Shaun White was at the Olympics. Therefore, we made a film about them, and not about some Pupkin who stole something somewhere. Of course, there was everything, including trading of the land and corruption, as in any Olympics. Believe me, in the US as well as in any other country, it is all the same. The IOC did not commission a film about corruption in Sochi; the IOC was interested in sports. There were other directors who made films about corruption. And, unfortunately, a lot of it was not true.
Do you mean Putin’s Games? Have you seen the film?
Yes. And a lot of it was not true. In the end, the Games were held, facilities were sound, nothing collapsed. It will all live.
The thing is, such a film was also a commission. There was a request to make a film about the Olympics, and there was another request to show how bad it all is in the country. When the Olympic Games in Sochi are reproved by the people on the other side, by those who were not granted to hold the Games, it seems that those people are just upset. It is clear that the decision to hold the Olympics in Russia was legitimate. It is troublesome to bribe the IOC. Bribing a competitor was highly unlikely. Russia’s rival Korea had an official sponsor in Samsung. Russia would not have enough money to bribe Samsung! I think, it was decided to hold the Olympics in Russia in order to develop sports infrastructure in our country. We could embark upon disputing over the issue of corruption and the economic component of the Games. But you are mistaken if you think that the IOC is interested in that, or if you think that the officials of the Olympic Committee are upset about the costs of the Games in Sochi. The IOC is happy that so many resources have been used! It is propaganda for sports.
Of course, it will be very challenging to outdo Russia in the preparation for the next Olympics. As they say, the Russians would do anything to prove their importance and recognition in the world. It is in our tradition.
Is your film a piece of propaganda for sports or for Russia?
I think, it is propaganda for the Olympics. The fact that in the modern Russian approach to sports there is a lot that is ambivalent, intriguing, and worthy of serious discussion, perhaps, is critical. But I was occupied with something different. Propaganda for the Russian lifestyle was not my concern.
A colleague of mine told me that I film like Leni Riefenstahl. Of course, I have seen the film Olympia and I think that only a fool would call it a pro-Nazi movie. There are scenes where Hitler was not portrayed in the best possible light, for example, when he makes a wry face at the moment of victory of a black athlete. Riefenstahl was a very courageous woman; her relationship with the Nazis and especially Joseph Goebbels was manifold. Those who have read her memoirs know that under the aegis of the Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, another film was being made at the same time about the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
With all due respect to the talent of Leni Riefenstahl, I think that the aesthetics of her film are indeed consistent with Nazi aesthetics and the cult of the Superman.
Maybe so. But sports, at its very foundation, propagates the cult of the Superman. Therefore, in my film the orientation point was the philosophy of Pierre de Coubertin, who actually feared the domination of the cult of the Superman in sports.
And that is exactly what we talked about with our protagonists. I never thought that athletes could be such philosophers. They are very interesting to converse with if you ask them rather contemplative questions. Hence, my film is not concerned with the question, “Who stole what?” but with the issue of ceasing the global process of the cult of the Superman. The film is also devoted to the young athletes who become the leaders of their generation. American Shaun White brought a whole generation of young people into sports, hence keeping them from drugs. If we love Shaun White, in a sense we love America. Dozens of children came to hockey because of Crosby. We were shooting in Detroit, a rather quaint town, where one thing relinquishes its life as another is reborn. For many years stadiums in Detroit lived on Russian hockey. And when I see tens of thousands of young Americans wearing T-shirts with the name “Datsyuk,” I realize that what Datsyuk has done for Russia and for its alliance with other countries, is a hundred times greater than what any politician has done.
Does your film allude to the events in Ukraine in any way? They happened exactly during the time of the Games.
Of course, there are Ukrainian athletes and Ukrainian flags in my film. However, during the Olympics no extreme confrontation took place. A full crisis fell upon the Paralympics. Some students of mine worked on the subject.
We did talk with our protagonists on the subject of sports as a replacement for war. You cannot even imagine how thought-provoking and speculative their views are! There is an entire block in the film allotted to the topic of war: war in the real world, internal war, the confrontation with one another in sports, the confrontation of nations, hatred – and how to overcome all of this. My film transcends a mere study of corruption.