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‘The Rise of Wagner’ Review: A Potent Doc Study of a Mercenary Player in Global Politics

A creeping black spot on a darkening globe suffers some degree of illumination — not voluntarily, of course — in “The Rise of Wagner.” Benoit Bringer’s documentary about the Russian private army of mercenaries relies on a mix of news reports, human rights experts and sometimes anonymous witnesses to expose Wagner Group’s shadowy involvement in various conflicts over the last decade. It’s a damning if necessarily rather fragmented view, since the organization remains cloaked in secrecy, its own government continuing to deny affiliation. Offering global political insights as well as lurid true-crime-type content, this Hot Docs premiere is well-suited to broadcast slots for serious-minded nonfiction.

The Kremlin’s smokescreen on this subject — several times we see Putin blandly batting away related press questions, though he’s photographed with top Wagner personnel often enough — simply extends the company’s internal policies from the start. Until just a few months ago, former Soviet convict turned food-service entrepreneur Yevgeny Prigozhin furiously disavowed connection to the “shadow army.” When evidence that he founded and still controls it became undeniable, he dropped that pretense, and now appears to be pursuing a role of more overt political influence in Russia — one often openly critical of its official Army and their leadership.

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Wagner Group first surfaced in 2014, when a popular Ukrainian movement to more closely align with the EU angered Russia, resulting in a sudden “civil war” that seemed largely driven by Russian Federation aggression. Footage of obviously well-funded and supplied military without national identification began surfacing online, providing tanks, air defense, artillery etc. that Eastern Ukraine Russophiles could hardly have conjured on their own. Soon such forces, apparently comprised largely of Russian ex-military, paramilitaries, ex-convicts and so forth, were being employed on fronts as diverse as Libya, Syria, Central African Republic, Mali and (with the early 2022 invasion) Ukraine again.

Despite their relatively small number, they have an outsized impact, with one UN advisor here saying that whenever they’re detected, human rights abuses follow. Those run a gamut from torture and rape to civilian massacres and political assassinations, with Ukraine President Zelenskyy purportedly targeted several times. While recruits attracted by high pay are often told they’re defending against terrorists, in fact they’re often propping up dictators, and/or providing security for lucrative industries (oil wells, diamond mines) in which Russia hopes to gain a stake, particularly within African territories.

All this goes on in large part because it is unacknowledged. The very existence of Wagner Group was denied for some time, even by its own leaders. The Kremlin continues to insist it cannot possibly have any ties, because such private military organizations are officially against the law in Russia. But it is clear to many that they’ve become indispensable to actual Russian policy, doing dirty work that the “real” Army is best kept out of.

A larger driving force is a desire to rebuild an empire lost since the Soviet Union’s collapse. Unsurprisingly, that cause attracts ideological extremists — the company’s name evidently sprang from, yes, a key player’s fondness for Hitler’s favorite composer. It would be interesting to compare that and other characteristics to similar mercenary corporations around the globe, such as the American one formerly known as Blackwater. But “Rise of Wagner” already has too much on its plate to widen the scope further.

To provide some narrowed human-interest focus, Bringer emphasizes a handful of cases where sufficient hard evidence has surfaced to pursue criminal charges in one forum or another. Mohammed Taha al-Ismail was a Syrian father of four led by poverty to seek work abroad; when he returned, he was dubiously accused of treason and forced into military service. Somehow this led to his death — beaten, tortured, decapitated, his corpse then crucified and burnt — in a notorious video disseminated as an apparent warning to deserters. One version showed an identifiable Wagner employee amongst masked, cackling fellow abusers, though conveniently that man was dead under “mysterious circumstances” by the time international investigators sought his whereabouts.

In another case, three independent Russian journalists went to investigate suspected Wagner activities in Central African Republic, and were soon killed execution-style. A communication later leads straight from their leaked itinerary to Wagner staff, suggesting a carefully orchestrated operation. There’s also the testimony of Maral Gabidullin, a seemingly lone former Wagner operative willing to turn public whistleblower.

One gets the sense these stories are just the tip of an iceberg. There is scant hope for justice within Russia: Confronted with Mohammad’s grisly demise, authorities there claimed that extremely graphic video (only selectively excerpted here) somehow did not constitute proof of death. International courts are beginning to make headway. But they are hidebound by the fact that there is so little law regulating private military and security forces, a dangerous growth industry as yet barely acknowledged by governmental bodies.

The bravery of UN-affiliated investigators and, especially, Russian reporters not supporting the official state line is on ample display here. Truly independent news outlets are so imperiled in that nation that newspaper Novaya Gazeta (whose editor-in-chief won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021) is first mentioned as “the one with the most murdered journalists.” Postscripts note that publication, and many of the documentary’s Fourth Estate participants, have since been shut down or had to flee the country. Meanwhile, there’s footage of Wagner Group’s luxurious new St. Petersburg HQ, which opened last November amidst the kind of fanfare that company had previously avoided like the plague.

It’s a dense, sometimes unwieldy but compelling overview that Bringer organizes in somewhat erratic, episodic fashion — creating an occasionally confusing big picture, but one always potent in the moment, with no lack of shocking declarations and inferences. That an organization like Wagner’s violence is visited on mostly poorer nations and “disposable” populations from very high in the international power structure gets underlined by impressive frequent aerial views of glittering cityscapes, plus the occasional dramatic rural terrain. Though its urgency is apt, there’s something of a forced, stock procedural-TV thriller tenor to Clement Tery’s original score.

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