Once you are dubbed the “Merchant of Death” your legacy takes on high degree of notoriety in the media. Try as you might to escape it and reshape your image, these efforts prove to be futile. Such is the case for Viktor Bout, whose work inspired the nickname; he’s currently serving a 25-year sentence for international arms smuggling. When you’re known as the world’s largest arms dealer it’s difficult to alter your reputation. Bout has been seen as a villain, a post-Soviet Russia ’90s Biznizman (the Russian word for Gangster), and his story inspired the Nicolas Cage-starring 2005 film Lord of War. Now the most intimate, and sometimes mundane moments, of Bout’s life are revealed through his own personal home videos in the documentary The Notorious Mr. Bout.
Filmmakers Maxim Pozdorovkin (Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer) and Tony Gerber (Full Battle Rattle) met at Bout’s trial after he was caught in a multi-million dollar sting operation in Thailand. This is also where the two met Bout’s wife Alla who eventually shared home videos of her life with Viktor: Bout filmed constantly on his camcorder and considered himself an amateur filmmaker. In one of his home videos he expresses this desire and says, “I want to travel the world, make documentary film.” Through this footage, and via commentary from those who worked with Bout, his personal friends, and his wife, Pozdorovkin and Gerber draw a sharp contrast between the private Bout and the “Merchant of Death” of the popular imagination.
I interviewed Pozdorovkin about uncovering all this personal footage, debunking the myth of Bout, and the ambiguity of the arms trade.
What was it like uncovering all of Viktor Bout’s home movies?
Both Tony and I had an interest in Viktor Bout and then finding out that there’s this treasure trove of home movies that no one has really looked at in years was incredible. At first your reaction is, oh my God, here’s Bout’s diary because at that point we were still under the general impression of who Viktor was and what his life was like. But then the process of going through that material left us to a lot of questions, and led to a lot of false allegations that had been out there in the media. So then we realized we had to really find out ourselves. I think initially our impulse was to make a film that would be just completely those home movies. In a way that would be an interesting film, but what it would essentially do is allow people to take the version of who Viktor Bout was and basically project everything based on this footage. And that would be neither a more truthful nor more interesting film because what’s interesting about his life is this parallel between the movies he was making and the script and movie that was being made about him.
Did you get a sense that maybe making movies is what he wanted to do all along? Or was he happy partaking in illegal activity?
No, for him, one of the things that we confronted very clearly while making the film, and while watching this material, it’s a business as usual and the moral blindness that the arms business always has — it’s there. So the whole point is that it’s not illegal and we do everything to make it perfectly legal. But there is the moral aspect. I think that, for Viktor, the fact that he comes from humble beginnings and then has this extraordinary life exploring the world and building his business, is separate from the illegality. And, for me, that was very much the epitome of the 1990s rampant capitalism in Russia. Bout was just an uber entrepreneur much like many others that sprung up at that time to take on the world. But I feel like, for Viktor, there was a genuine interest to document his life as something extraordinary. He didn’t hold back from shooting everything.
It’s interesting that he didn’t hold back and had no sense of fear either. He made himself so public, like when he was on the cover of New York Times Magazine. What do you make of that?
I think that he was incredibly naive — he really thought that because he was in this business, it’s more or less playing by the rules. He believed in everything that happened to him, there was a great naïveté about him and one of the subjects in the film said that Viktor was charmed by his own good luck. He continues and continues to believe in that, even now, more and more with time, but that is one of the most interesting paradoxes of Viktor. His home-video footage is such an interesting way for us of deflating this myth which was essentially built on this idea that no one knew anything about him, there were no photographs of him anywhere, but the guy wasn’t hiding, most people weren’t even looking for him or doing any research on him. But he was a figure for which to write about, what is undoubtedly a problem for the illegal arms trade and the use of cargo planes in the transport of arms.
When did you first meet Bout? How was that?
Our first meeting was so epic because when he was held at The Manhattan Correctional Center — he was held in what’s called the SHU, a special housing unit, which is where John Gotti and Bernie Madoff were held. But Viktor was there for almost 14 months in solitary confinement with no daylight, all the windows had been plastered. They brought him in to a tiny room and he was shackled eight different ways. Think Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. Immediately we start talking. Talking about linguistic theories and theories of linguistic origin, just language. Five minutes into it he had to pee. And the thing is when you have to pee in that situation you have to get all the guards to come back, shackle him eight different ways again, and bring him to the bathroom and that can take 45 minutes to an hour. So what he does is he pees in a bottle in front of me and we’re in this tiny room. So it was a very surreal first meeting. But in general we talked about what we wanted to do from the very beginning, what we wanted to do with the film, what we wanted to say with it, that it essentially wouldn’t be an expose. That we wanted to work with the material, and essentially that’s we did. And build his life out of that, investigating and trying to find the people who were in that footage and comment on it.
Did he seem to be on board with the documentary you wanted to make? Was he warm towards you?
No, well Viktor’s always exactly the same. He’s always in the present. It took about six or seven months to really get all the footage and get all the trust. From the beginning we had an agreement on the framework for moving forward. But actually being able to get all the material, get all the footage, took many months of communication. We couldn’t film him in prison but we talked to him through many other subsequent meetings in jail. We talked to him about his life and he was very open to explaining everything he did and didn’t do. And that was really the process that began after our initial meeting. Looking through the research, meetings and researching then coming back and talking through it with him. And then eventually walking through all this footage, discovering more, writing him with questions, having him respond. The whole film took about three years to make so that was probably the first year and a half.
What was Alla’s involvement in giving you access to Viktor’s footage? And without the footage would you have gone in a different direction or even feel like you could make something?
I don’t think that we could have made something interesting without the footage. I think it’s the whole idea of the film that when you watch certain footage there are certain things that in the process come up. Things that really don’t cohere. The film is very much a deconstruction of a myth. And when you deconstruct a myth, our idea was to underscore certain elements that don’t cohere with the official version of who he was. So I think the whole film is built on this tension between what he was built up as and what he actually was. He’s not a scapegoat, necessarily, or totally innocent but he was something erratically different, something smaller and less significant. He was a cargo transporter who transported weapons but he was a middle man and a middle man involved in the chain of many middle men involved in this kind of business. So I feel like without that footage you wouldn’t really have it.
And speaking of Alla, I think Alla, for me, is very much the heart of the film because she had a very interesting relationship to this whole story. They were living this sort of glamorous life and she was a fashion designer, sort of hoity-toity. And she didn’t really care that much about Viktor’s business, she didn’t really interest herself in a way. After his arrest in Thailand she had to learn much more about him. And with the film we see her watch some of this footage and review her own life and reconsider it as well. I think if she has that kind of self regard in the sense that Viktor is much more ideological when you talk to him, a lot of time he’ll just go to the grand political.
Yes, it’s interesting to watch her in that process and, as a viewer, to unpack Viktor’s life with her through watching his videos.
And I think for her it was obviously very difficult for all the personal reasons but then, I’ll say that the Bouts don’t necessary agree or like the film. They have a very different sense of what happened in the sense that they think it was a complete conspiracy, that it was handled from the top of the U.S. government and commanded to go get him. Whereas what I think is most fascinating about the story is that it really is a snowballing effect of notoriety and of a media reputation and as it builds up and then when they decide to get him, what’s really interesting is they really did not know very much about him. They literally Googled “World’s Biggest Arms Dealer” and they found him. And they had run that sting operation several times before, maybe to someone else, and they didn’t even read the book about him, which is a bit problematic. So the whole story’s a strange inversion of the relationship of art imitating life imitating art and back again. It has so many inversions in that dialogue between reality and media.
So Viktor has seen the movie.
Yes and I think that he didn’t like it largely because he, I think, wanted to be seen as a hero. A lot of times people don’t want to see themselves as they actually are and he doesn’t like the fact that he is seen as naive or a buffoon in certain regards. I think they appreciate that it was a genuine effort on our part, that it wasn’t an attempt to make an argument about him, it was a true engagement with who he was and what this material was and an attempt to get to the bottom of it but through a different approach. And that was our goal from the beginning and our first meeting. Ultimately we’re not journalists, we’re filmmakers and we’re interested in working with footage and seeing what kind of questions that it can bring out in people. John Cassavetes has a wonderful saying that when an audience walks out of your movie, if they’re not arguing about what they just saw you fucked up. You didn’t do your job properly. And I think that with this film that’s exactly what we want. It would be a great failure on our part if you really felt so strongly one way or the other. We should feel conflicted about it because it is ultimately a grey area, incredibly nuanced and incredibly complicated, this world and the world of the arms trade in general.
One of the things I’ve been saying recently in connection to the discourse and the dialogue around a lot of the shootings in the U.S. is that it’s interesting people rightly pinpoint the NRA as a corrosive force in the dialogue. It’s very strange that no one ever really goes the next step and says that this is a huge business. Arms manufacturing is a huge, huge business. And a business that is represented by the NRA. And until they’re talking about the fact that these businesses are operating and they’re creating things that are legal and they know that when they ask for new products, old products have to go somewhere because they know that these people have business and they do everything to make the transfer and the shipping of arms across the world as easy, as fluid, and as unregulated as possible. And I think that for us one of the first things that we confronted in watching all this footage is the banality of that business. That it’s just cargo for them. Sometimes it’s more profitable to buy arms and other times its more profitable to buy flowers or chickens. It really is a crazy supply and demand market. And it was especially a market that opened up to globalization in the ’90s.
Right, not a lot of people are familiar with this businesses. Where did your initial interest in it, and Bout in particular, spark?
When I was in graduate school I had done a bunch of research on the arms trade in general and how it works. And one of the things that I found really fascinating while doing that was, there are certain issues where what our intuitive understanding about how this fields works, with certain things it’s more or less corrupt and, with the arms industry, the arms trade, it’s just so far from reality. While doing the research for this film an arms dealer told us that 95 percent of everything that you hear about the arms trade is fabricated by journalists and screenwriters, from their imaginations. And while doing that initial research I had read the book about Viktor and I became interested in him. I grew up in Moscow and grew up during that time so I’ve always been fascinated by these ’90s ruthless entrepreneur types. Some went abroad; most of them stayed in Russia. They wreaked a lot of havoc there. A lot of Russian people when they see the movie they immediately recognize him as this ’90s kind of go-getter type, like the Wild West of Western business capitalism or what have you. So I didn’t know if I was going to write a fiction film about this world or about him. And then he was arrested in Thailand. He was finally extradited to the U.S. and I went to the trial and met his wife. I started writing more about the story and then Tony and I met at the trial as well and it was a very nice marriage of conveying material right away. But also Tony had done a film about the DEA, and he’s an American. I’m a Russian, so he had access to them and I was able to get access to the Bout family. So he was a perfect partner for this film and for this film to do justice for the story.
The final scene, filmed by Bout, is weirdly beautiful.
I know. I love it.
It’s great and Bout becomes a bit poetic in that moment. What do you make of that side of him? Or was there footage that maybe surprised you the most about Bout as a person?
There are a few moments like this that I genuinely love. I think that’s the power of film, and especially with documentary film, that a lot of times moments that you think you know, or the impression you have, a journalistic scaffolding or understanding or you can put them in a box, is completely disrupted. Where people can observe them in real time and constantly break out of those boxes. For me, I love the scene of him sitting around making Russian meat dumplings, shirtless, talking about entropy. How he read everything about entropy that there was. With Viktor there’s tons of these moments where all these other sides would come through. With that one, it’s a strange one because he’s so alone and feels so naked during that moment that, for me, ultimately, all the contradictions of the story have to come back to that moment of who he was.
He was this entrepreneur with a capital “E,” but there’s lots of these unexpected moments of incredible naiveté where you just are stunned at what the hell is he thinking. For example, in 2002 after had been kicked out of Sharjah, where his company was based he applied for a visa to go to the U.S. and he gets rejected. And he’s walking around for the whole day mad that’s he rejected from this visa and everyone’s like, What the hell did you think would happen to you if you went there? And he was just oblivious in this way. He’s a big-picture guy who’s really good at logistics, which is a rare combination for business. In 2000 he was investing in agriculture and growing organic arugula in Russia because he felt that was the way of the future, and of course its just now gaining traction in Russia. Or he had this strange moment when he found out that reindeer meat was incredibility healthy but so much of the Russian reindeer meat was going to restaurants in Sweden and Finland. So he started figuring out this transport route for reindeer meat so he could get it to Moscow restaurants and then found out that Moscow restaurants were way too conservative to serve reindeer meat. So there’s this constant failure and ways he failed his business from one end to another and there’s something about that last moment, there’s something about that spirit that he had which ultimately he couldn’t say no to any kind of business opportunity.
Was there anyone you wanted to talk to that denied your request?
Not really. I think there were people we talked to who didn’t want to be on camera. But we used their account to verify certain information. It was very important for us to have the story straight. I’ll give you one example, everyone loves to quote about how Viktor was actually involved in flying fuel for the Iraq invasion for U.S. troops. So technically that’s not really true, because what happened was Viktor and his brother split the company, they had a fight and a falling out once he moved to South Africa. Every single journalist writing about the story will mention that because it just kind of sounds better. So for us it was very important, we were doing this media deconstruction to stay away from that and to not just shoot for the incriminating details. There’s enough of them and they’re not actually what you would expect. And what the films discover and what had never been known, a lot of the troop training in Rwanda and help with logistics, that had never been known about him and had never been published in any book or profile.
What do you consider the difference between being a documentarian and a journalist? I’m wondering how different you views these roles.
I think that for me there is a huge difference and that film is a different way of seeing the world and embracing different contradictions. You should use the power of film to create those ambiguities. You have to have that beautiful complexity of life itself, and you should use that to foster people to the think more, to question more, to challenge more and to grapple with the ways that their large ideas don’t really fit into the world they’re observing. Journalism, because it’s connected to the single voice of the storyteller, has to have an informational cohesion and that’s fine and that’s good. I think both are valuable. And I think to have documentaries become more journalistic it’s somewhat natural to what the medium is, to what it feels like to actually watch raw footage of something happening. A lot of times when you think it means one thing but when you watch and it feels different and you have to grapple with that, the truth in that moment.
The Notorious Mr. Bout is now in limited release via Market Road Films.