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Documentary Shows Softer Side of Russia’s ‘Merchant of Death’

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Viktor Bout, the arms dealer nicknamed by the Western press "the Merchant of Death," is standing in a kitchen in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, making pelmeni. The year is 2000, and Bout is providing weapons for the country's bloody civil war.

MOSCOW, January 29 (by Joy Neumeyer, The Moscow News) – Viktor Bout, the arms dealer nicknamed by the Western press "the Merchant of Death," is standing in a kitchen in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, making pelmeni. The year is 2000, and Bout is providing weapons for the country's bloody civil war. As his shirtless cronies wedge bits of ground beef into pasta dough, one man mentions the hypothesis that the universe will eventually collapse on itself. "That's absolutely right," Bout says as he rolls the dough. "A system is always heading toward self-destruction."

The scene's dark, surreal humor is the heart of "The Notorious Mr. Bout," a documentary by Tony Gerber and Maxim Pozdorovkin that premiered last week at the Sundance Film Festival in the US. In addition to ferrying weapons for violent regimes, Bout was also a passionate cook, linguist, ballroom dancer, and most importantly, home movie fanatic.

For "The Notorious Mr. Bout," the directors gained access to footage Bout filmed over the course of 25 years. It shows him hawking machine guns and strolling with war criminals, but also doing the conga, jumping naked in the snow and romancing his wife Alla.

Pozdorovkin calls the film "a bit of a head trip."

"People come in expecting something totally different, and then they go out with a lot of questions," he said, speaking from Park City, Utah, before Sundance's close.

Pozdorovkin was born in Moscow and grew up in the US. He previously directed "Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer," which made it onto the longlist for this year's Best Documentary Oscar. "There's a way in which these stories are bizarre mirror images of each other," he said. "Ultimately, they're both show trials."

The ambitious Bout, who learned Esperanto as a child, entered international trade in his early 20s, when he began importing Coca Cola and other consumer goods to Eastern Europe in the wake of the Soviet collapse.

At the time, "there were stockpiles of old Soviet military equipment that wasn't needed anymore," said Matt Potter, a journalist who has covered the arms trade and is interviewed in the film. "It was either going to go rusty, or someone was going to make some money out of it."

Bout chose the latter option, banding together with some of his army pilot friends to travel around the globe. When "The Notorious Mr. Bout" begins, Bout is driving a ramshackle car and getting married in an ill-fitting suit. Within a couple of years, he is chartering a private plane with leopard-print seats. But by 2010, his own shots are replaced by the filmmakers': He is behind bars, far from his beloved movie camera. After years of ferrying cargo across Africa and the Middle East, Bout was brought down by a sting operation in Bangkok in 2008 and later extradited to New York, where he was convicted of conspiring to kill Americans and money laundering, among other crimes.

Pozdorovkin first met Bout in the US maximum security prison where he is currently serving his 25-year sentence. He had spent the previous 14 months in solitary confinement, with the lights on 24 hours a day. When he entered the room, he was shackled across his feet, arms and chest.

"I'd never seen anything like it," Pozdorovkin said.

These days, Bout spends much of his time listening to Puerto Rican salsa on the local radio station; his lawyer has printed him dance steps. During his meetings with Pozdorovkin, which could not be recorded, he urinated in a bottle to avoid making the shackled, guarded trip to the bathroom. Pozdorovkin bought vending machine snacks for the newly vegan prisoner, who is now much leaner than he was in his transatlantic heyday.

After more than a year in solitary confinement, Bout was eager to talk, and the men spent hours discussing literature, politics and languages. Eventually, he and Alla gave permission for the filmmakers to use his home movies, which total over 150 hours.

Bout had a vague idea of making a movie about his life. In one bit of footage, his associates train Rwandan soldiers in gas masks. "These will be the funniest shots in the whole movie," Bout says with relish.

Other moments show him with figures such as Jean-Pierre Bemba, the Congolese politician who has been tried in The Hague for war crimes. But even when Bout is in the middle of the world's most violent conflicts, he unfailingly acts like a tourist, merrily taking snapshots of the locals and suggesting the home of a deposed leader be turned into honeymoon suites.

"He comes out not as a sinister, networked kind of bigwig," Potter said, "but as a bit of a used car dealer."

As business grew, Bout gained fame: A book came out about him in 2007 titled "The Merchant of Death," and his story served as the inspiration for "The Lord of War," a 2005 thriller starring Nicolas Cage. Rather than retreating, he fed the publicity, posing for a New York Times Magazine cover story. Eventually, Potter said, he simply became "too visible," and was caught in the Thai sting by agents posing as Colombian guerillas.

Part of the film's goal is to question what Pozdorovkin calls "naive" assumptions about the arms trade. "There's this idea that it's this shadow world that's so dark, but everyone's complicit in it, governments and everyone else," he said. At various points, he noted, Bout was on the payroll of both Russia and the US.

Several attempts to screen "Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer" in Moscow have been nixed, most recently by city culture head Sergei Kapkov, in a move that Pozdorovkin calls "idiotic." "The Notorious Mr. Bout," however, is in talks to appear at several Moscow film festivals and get a limited theatrical release.

Bout hasn't seen the film, though he may have the chance if it's shown on the prison's television. In the meantime, his former business goes on without him.

"There are a lot of people still doing what he does," Potter said. "They're just much more subtle about it."

 

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