Agnieszka Holland’s “Mr Jones”, in competition at the Berlin film festival, stars James Norton as crusading Welsh journalist Gareth Jones who risked his life to expose the atrocity.
Peter Sarsgaard (“The Looming Tower”) appears as the New York Times’s corrupt Moscow bureau chief Walter Duranty who won a Pulitzer prize for a series of articles denying the man-made famine was taking place.
Holland said she was drawn to the screenplay written by Andrea Chalupa because the mass deaths were part of a dark, still little-known chapter of European history.
“I felt like the ghosts of this crime are just calling for…some kind of spotlight, for some kind of justice. So I felt a moral duty when I read it,” said Holland, who is best known for directing “Europa Europa”, “The Secret Garden” and episodes of “The Wire”.
She said the story about the 1932-33 Soviet-era famine, which many now regard as a genocide ordered by then leader Joseph Stalin, offered timely lessons about how societies can destroy themselves from within.
“The more we were advancing with this film, unfortunately, more and more these questions became relevant and urgent. Because I believe we cannot have democracy without free media,” she said.
“This triad which we try to show – the cowardice of the politicians, the corruption of media and the indifference of general public or societies – it is something which opens up the door for the disasters…of the 20th century.”
The famine took place as harvests dwindled and Stalin’s police enforced a brutal policy of requisitioning grain and other foodstuffs from farms. Historians estimate the death toll at between four million and 10 million.
‘The terrible party’
When Jones, a British reporter who had once interviewed Hitler, begins to investigate, he runs into massive resistance from Duranty, who is the toast of Moscow society with connections right to the top of the Soviet power apparatus.
Holland said she was horrified by Stalin’s enduring popularity in Russia, calling the famine a still corrosive issue in relations with Ukraine.
“Stalin was one of the greatest murderers in the history of humanity…but he won the war and he made the Soviet Union great again,” she said with a smile.
“The people realised that they’d be maybe not happy, not rich under Stalin, not free for sure, but somehow united in some kind of… safeness and they have nostalgia for that. It is a big lesson for humanity.”
She argued that the path to Brexit and the erosion of democratic institutions in many EU countries had been paved with “essential lies” now spread at lightning speed online.
“Fake news which was pretty quickly spread over the last centuries is now spread in a few seconds and globally,” she said.
Norton, who is British, and Sarsgaard, an American, both admitted they were largely unaware of the Ukrainian famine until they started work on the film.
Sarsgaard said a lack of historical awareness could rot even robust democracies like the United States.
“In America, we study American history. Period. If we weren’t involved we don’t learn about it. It’s a country that’s very obsessed with itself, obviously,” he said.
“I even find as an actor when I go abroad and I talk about our troubles with Trump, a lot of people from a lot of other countries look back at me and say, ‘We’ve had a Trump for a very long time – welcome to the terrible party’.”