A human portrait of a Russian arms dealer

In his new documentary, Jewish filmmaker Tony Gerber explores the rags-to-riches-to-prison story of the notorious Viktor Bout

Suspected Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout (center) is escorted by US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) officers after arriving in New York, November 16, 2010. (Courtesy of DEA)
Suspected Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout (center) is escorted by US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) officers after arriving in New York, November 16, 2010. (Courtesy of DEA)

While making a documentary for National Geographic about bush pilots in the Democratic Republic of Congo, filmmaker Tony Gerber repeatedly heard the name, Viktor Bout.

“Everywhere there were Russian planes,” he said, “the pilots all had a story. He was a larger than life character… a real life ‘Keyser Soze.'”

But unlike the fictional crime lord in the film “The Usual Suspects” starring Kevin Spacey, there is a real Viktor Bout, who was arrested in 2008 by Thai police in a sting operation with US Drug Enforcement Administration agents for allegedly trying to sell illegal weapons.

Almost three years later, the US won extradition and brought the suspected Russian arms dealer, dubbed the “merchant of death,” to New York to stand trial. Seeking access to Bout in prison, Gerber reached out to his wife, Alla, who had also come to Manhattan to attend the trial. It took another three years for Gerber and his collaborator, Maxim Pozdorovkin, to make a documentary detailing the rags-to-riches-to-prison journey of the notorious arms traffiker.

‘The Notorious Mr. Bout’ is a portrait of a life mythologized but little understood

Naturally, Bout himself takes center stage in this new documentary, Gerber told The Times of Israel.

“We worked our way out from the center to family members, associates, and finally to law enforcement professionals who knew him only as far as his criminal dossier was concerned.”

With unprecedented excerpts of Bout’s home movies as well as DEA surveillance material, “The Notorious Mr. Bout” is a portrait of a life mythologized but little understood.

The Russian entrepreneur defies simple description, Gerber says. He was also a war profiteer, an aviation magnate, an arms smuggler and, strangest of all, an amateur filmmaker. And until three days prior to his arrest on charges of conspiring to kill Americans, Bout kept his camera running, documenting his own life, skirting international law.

In an interview with The Times of Israel, Gerber shared more about the film — and a surprising development that led the Jewish filmmaker to exploring his roots in Europe.

What message do you hope the film conveys?

The film is intended to challenge an audience’s assumptions about the notion of good and evil… the difference between “moral” and “legal.” The film also challenges an audience’s assumptions about the arms trade.

The irony or little known fact about the arms trade that we hope to highlight is that the obfuscation and shadiness of the world of arms dealing is perpetuated by governments in order for them to be able to support unsavory allies of their own choosing, without the support of international bodies like the UN. A case in point is the Iran-Contra scandal.

What are some of the film’s unique strengths?

TheNotoriousMrBout_POSTERThe access we had to Viktor’s home movies is far and away the greatest attribute of the film. Through these 200 hours of personal and revealing footage, we have the elements to provide the audience with a front row seat of two decades of remarkable change in the world, from the collapse of the Soviet Union, to the globalization and the explosion of the shipping industry, to 9/11 and the world to follow.

Remarkably, Bout changes very little in the course of these decades — decades of tremendous world-shaping events. He is like a character in a picaresque novel, “Candide,” or the cartoon character Mister Magoo, a blind man who cannot adapt, to comic effect, and stumbles through a world that changes around him.

Have you experienced any negative backlash in depicting Bout this way?

The little bit, and it is tiny, of negative backlash has been around the idea our film humanizes an arms dealer. The assumption in this case is that arms dealer equals pure evil and that we are apologizing for an unredeemable soul.

What other assumptions has the film debunked?

Folks are amazed that we found the 200 hours of home movie footage when Bout’s media reputation was that he was scarcely ever filmed; because of his guilt and the blood on his hands, that he wouldn’t allow for images. The cache of home movie footage proved this assumption about Bout to be a myth created in the media.

Has touring the film to festivals and screenings led you to any surprising response?

At Sundance [Film Festival], the producer of the Andrew Nichols film “Lord of War,” starring Nicholas Cage as a Hollywood version of Bout, came up to us after the premiere and said that he feels terribly, as if his film piled onto the world’s perception of Bout as the “most dangerous man on the planet.”

How has your own Jewish identify surfaced in the making of this film?

My mother and father were the first generation in their respective families to be born and raised in the States. My father’s family were Jews who came from Germany and Lithuania in the 1920s. My mother’s family on both sides came from Romania in the 1920s.

‘It’s ironic that a film about a Russian oligarch would bring me closer to my Jewish ancestors’

I had the great opportunity to screen “The Notorious Mr. Bout” in Bucharest, Romania this past year and used the opportunity to travel to my mother’s ancestral village in Moinesti. There had been a thriving Jewish community at the turn of last century that dwindled to none after World War II. The Jewish cemetery there is up-kept by one family — the survivors of the last surviving Jewish resident — and a small team of Romanian volunteers.

My visit was sad but also deeply poignant. It brought me closer to my ancestors and their legacy of discrimination. It’s interesting and perhaps ironic that a film about a Russian oligarch would create this opportunity for me.

So, what’s next for Tony Gerber?

I am currently making a film for National Geographic on the Kurds in Iraq and their army, the Peshmerga, who are effectively the only ground troops resisting ISIS with any success. I am developing a screenplay about a woman geologist working for a Western mining giant in Mongolia who gets caught up in a power struggle between greed and ecology. I am also in production on a film about former Liberian president Charles Taylor’s American-born son. The feature documentary is being developed with Bret Rattner’s company RatPac.

“The Notorious Mr. Bout” was released in November on iTunes, Amazon Instant Video and Google Play. It is also available at www.thenotoriousmrbout.com.

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