The best documentaries about dictators are made after their death. “Babel” collected 10 documentaries about tyrants (Putin is still alive — but not for long)

Dmytro Rayevskyi
Tetyana Lohvynenko
The best documentaries about dictators are made after their death. “Babel” collected 10 documentaries about tyrants (Putin is still alive — but not for long)

Ангеліна Коткова / «Бабель»

Political scientist Jennifer Gandhi estimated that in the 1970s up to 75% of the regimes on the planet were personal, military or party dictatorships. Only in the 1990s their number dropped to less than 50%. Some of the dictators managed to leave quietly, without uprisings and revolutions, like Francisco Franco in Spain. Some were killed by rebels, like Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic. But they all had a lot in common: censorship, the cult of personality, repression against the opposition. "Babel" collected 10 documentaries about the 20th century tyrants and their regimes — from the socialist leaders Nicolae Ceausescu and Enver Hoxha to the mad African emperor Jean-Bedel Bokassa.

"How to become a tyrant"

A documentary miniseries from Netflix tells the story of six dictatorial regimes of the 20th century — Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, and the Kim dynasty. Using the example of each of them, the authors of the series show some aspect of the dictatorʼs life. Through Hitler, they showed the rise to power, through Hussein — repression against the opposition, and the figure of Stalin illustrates the theme of censorship and propaganda. The series is narrated by Peter Dinklage, and the information is presented in a somewhat satirical way.

How to Become a Tyrant/Netflix/voiceover — Peter Dinklage/duration — 6 episodes/2021/Rotten Tomatoes rating — 100% from critics, 75% from viewers/IMDb rating — 7.4.

"Propaganda Games"

Spanish director Alvaro Longoria went to North Korea, where he was allowed to film under the supervision of Korean officials in certain designated locations. Alejandro de Benos became his guide and the main character of the film. In 2000, this Spaniard created the Korean Friendship Association, a private organization that sells tourist trips to the DPRK and (possibly) performs tasks of North Korean intelligence. Longoria made the film not only on the basis of the footage he shot in the DPRK and interviews with de Benos. He also spoke with human rights activists, journalists and defectors from North Korea and talked about his impressions of the work of Korean propaganda, the Kim regime and the life of ordinary Koreans. A year after the release of the film, the Spanish police announced that Alejandro de Benos was suspected of smuggling weapons. In early 2022, an American court issued a warrant for his arrest. The FBI is looking for him for industrial espionage.

The Propaganda Game/Morena Films/director — Alvaro Longoria/duration — 1 hour 38 minutes/2015/Rotten Tomatoes rating — 93% from critics, 76% from viewers/IMDb rating — 6.8.

"Nostalgia for the Light"

In 1973, Chilean documentary filmmaker Patricio Guzman had to flee the dictatorial regime of Augusto Pinochet. At that time, many cinematographers emigrated from Chile. Pinochet did not like cinema, during his reign almost no films were made in the country. In addition, Guzmán was a supporter of former president Salvador Allende. Already in exile, he began to make films about these events — the "Battle for Chile" trilogy, which consisted of documentary footage that Guzmánʼs group managed to film before emigration.

In 2010, Guzmán released the film Nostalgia for Light about the aftermath of the Pinochet regime. Half of the tape is dedicated to the relatives of people executed by order of the dictator, who are still looking for them, not knowing either the circumstances of their death or their burial places. The other half is conversations with astronomers and geologists who look into the sky or dig into the ground and thus explore the past. Guzman metaphorically compares their work with studying the consequences of totalitarian regimes.

The film received the European Film Award, it was included in the special program of the Cannes Film Festival in 2010.

Nostalgia de la luz/Atacama Productions/director — Patricio Guzmán/duration — 1 hour 30 minutes/2010/Rotten Tomatoes rating — 100% from critics, 84% from viewers/IMDb rating — 7.6.

"Trujillo: the power of the generalissimo"

Rafael Leonidas Trujillo was the long-time dictator of the Dominican Republic who won the 1930 elections and ruled the country until he was assassinated by rebels in 1961. The regime had all the classic features of a dictatorship: Trujillo repressed the opposition, carried out ethnic cleansing of Haitians, established censorship and the cult of his personality, appointed close relatives to key positions, and was popularly nicknamed El Chivo due to his promiscuity.

Since 1991, Dominican filmmaker Rene Fortunato has released three documentaries about Trujillo and his regime, totaling more than four hours of footage. Fortunato begins with the childhood of the dictator, his career in the army and gradually analyzes all stages of the formation of the dictatorship. The original film is in Spanish, but there is an official English translation.

Trujillo: El poder del jefe/Video Cine Palau/director — Rene Fortunato/duration — 3 parts/1991-1996/Rotten Tomatoes rating — none/IMDb rating — 8.2.

"King of Communism: Nicolae Ceausescu"

Nicolae Ceausescu ruled Romania for 24 years: from 1965, when he became the General Secretary of the Romanian Communist Party, to 1989, when he was shot by rebels. Ceausescuʼs socialist regime was quite independent from the USSR — it took loans from Western countries, opposed the occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and refused to boycott the Olympics. But it wasnʼt any easier for the citizens of Romania itself — Ceausescu had his cult of personality, censorship and repressive apparatus.

"The King of Communism" is a short essay about life in Romania under Ceausescu and the consequences of his dictatorship. In 2010, another documentary film about this regime was released, "The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu" directed by Andrii Uzhyka — a three-hour selection of various newsreels from the dictatorʼs speeches, speeches and life in general.

The King of Communism: The Pomp & Pageantry of Nicolae Ceausescu/BBC/director — Ben Lewis/duration — 1 hour/2002/Rotten Tomatoes rating — none/IMDb rating — 7.4.

"The silence of others"

General Francisco Franco ruled Spain from 1936 until his death in 1975. His regime had many features of a dictatorship — repression, censorship, cult of personality. But the first reforms in the country began during Francoʼs lifetime, in the 1960s. And after his death, Spain gradually and quite peacefully transitioned to a democratic constitutional monarchy. Therefore, the consequences of dictatorship remained an almost unexplored topic for a long time. From the beginning of the 2000s, public discussions of the fate of the victims of repression began. And in 2007, in Spain, streets named after Franco began to be renamed and his monuments demolished.

For six years, the authors of the film "The Silence of Others" collected testimonies of repressed people who managed to survive, their relatives and witnesses of crimes. The film won many awards, including two awards at the Berlin International Film Festival, the Goya Award, the Peabody Award, and others.

El silencio de otros/El Deseo/directors — Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar/duration — 1 hour 36 minutes/2018/Rotten Tomatoes rating — 100% from critics, 82% from viewers/IMDb rating — 8.0.

"Echoes of the Dark Empire"

Jean-Bedel Bokassa was an orphan from the Central African Mbaka tribe. But he made a stunning career in the French army, fought during the Second World War, received the Legion of Honor, and rose to the rank of captain. And in 1962, he returned to the Central African Republic, where in three years he led a coup dʼétat and came to power. And the madness began.

Bokassaʼs regime was not just harsh — mass executions became commonplace. The president was suspected of cannibalism. And in 1976, Bokassa proclaimed the Tsar an empire, and himself an emperor. He spent a quarter of the countryʼs annual income on the coronation ceremony.

Director Werner Herzog made the film in the form of a journey of journalist Michael Goldsmith, who spoke with Bokassaʼs relatives, his political allies and enemies. He visited the places where the dictator lived, from the CAR to the castle in France, where Bokassa lived after his exile in 1979, when the French army staged a coup, and until his return to the CAR in 1986. And he tried to find the answer to how an educated officer and veteran turned into one of the most brutal tyrants of the 20th century.

Echos aus einem düsteren Reich/Werner Herzog Filmproduktio/director — Werner Herzog/duration — 1 hour 31 minutes/1990/Rotten Tomatoes rating — 71% from viewers, no from critics/IMDb rating — 7.2.

"Disappeared Image"

Cambodian filmmaker Rithi Panhʼs documentary about the genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge regime led by dictator Pol Pot, who ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. Various researchers estimate the number of victims of Pol Potʼs regime from 1.9 to 3 million people.

The main artistic feature of the film is that it not only shows archival footage and tells the story of the dictatorship, but also recreates some of the events and scenes from that time with the help of clay figurines made by sculptor Sarit Mang. The film received many awards — the Grand Prix of the "Special View" program of the Cannes Film Festival in 2013, "Lumiere" in 2016 and others. In 2014, The Disappearing Image was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

Lʼimage manquante/Catherine Dussart Productions/director — Rithi Pan/duration — 1 hour 32 minutes/2013/Rotten Tomatoes rating — 99% from critics, 76% from viewers/IMDb rating — 7.3.

"Mobutu, King of Zaire"

Mobutu Sese Seko came to power in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1965 as a result of a rebellion. He established a one-party regime under which he became the "father of the nation" and renamed the country Zaire. The name DRC was returned to the country only after the rebels overthrew the tyrant in 1997. During the Cold War, Mobutu managed to maintain diplomatic and economic ties with both the USA and the USSR for many years. He was friends with Nicolae Ceausescu and Kim Il Sung.

French director Thierry Michel explores the history of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the events that brought Mobutu to power, and the secrets of his political longevity. The film received a special prize of the European Film Award and an honorary prize of the Montreal Film Festival.

Mobutu, roi du Zaïre/Les Films de la Passerelled/director — Thierry Michel/duration — 2 hours 15 minutes/year 1999/Rotten Tomatoes rating — none/IMDb rating — 7.7.

"Concrete mushrooms"

Enver Hoxha ʼs regime in Albania was unique among other socialist regimes in Europe and Asia. Khoja was an ardent Stalinist, so he quarreled with other countries, which, in his opinion, did not correspond to Stalinʼs ideal. In 1948, following the USSR, he quarreled with Yugoslavia. After Nikita Khrushchev came to power in 1953, already with the Union itself, which he began to consider too liberal. And after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, he broke off relations with China. The only socialist leader whom Hoxha continued to respect was Nicolae Ceausescu.

And Hoxha built all of Albania with concrete bunkers and shelters, which were supposed to protect it from the invasion of one of the numerous enemies. There are almost two hundred thousand bunkers in the country, that is, a little less than six per square kilometer.

The short documentary "Concrete Mushrooms" tells how Albanians are now trying to creatively rethink these bunkers or use them for agriculture or industry.

Mushrooms of Concrete/Marubi Film & Media School Tirana/director — Martin Payens/duration — 23 minutes/2010/Rotten Tomatoes rating — no/IMDb rating — 7.7.

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