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Agnieszka Holland’s ‘Mr. Jones’ Sheds Light On Stalin Famine And Fake News

Over the years, Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland has made films that delve into human tragedies during historic times. Three of them (1985’s Angry Harvest, 1990’s Europa, Europa and 2011’s In Darkness) were set against backdrop of the Holocaust. The Oscar-nominated septuagenarian felt she had “dutifully said what needed to be said” through her acclaimed work and wasn’t planning to explore another historic tragedy on film until she came across Mr. Jones, a screenplay set during the Holodomor, the 1932-33 manmade famine that cost millions of Ukrainian peasants their lives under Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.

The epic drama (shot in Poland and on location in Kharkiv in Ukraine), told from the viewpoint of a brave Welsh journalist named Gareth Jones who reported on the covered-up tragedy, was written by previously unknown screenwriter Andrea Chalupa. After reading the first 10-15 pages of Chalupa’s script, Holland knew she would be returning to that “dark experience” at least one more time.

“I realized I’d never before seen a film like this, except in a documentary long ago about Stalin’s famine,” she said by phone from her home in France. “I was familiar with that, but I realized that the world is not.  The world is aware of the Nazi crimes against humanity but people don’t know—and maybe don’t want to know, really—about the communist crimes.”

Mr. Jones, starring James Norton, Vanessa Kirby, Peter Sarsgaard and Joseph Mawle, is set during the early 1930s, when a recently dismissed foreign advisor to British Prime Minister David Lloyd George ventures to Stalinist Russia to check out a tip from a journalist about the mystery funding source of the Soviet Union’s massive industrial expansion projects. As he arrives in Moscow, Jones discovers that his friend has been killed, ostensibly in a robbery outside of a hotel where Western journalists hang out (and apparently do little else but drink, carouse and do hard drugs, and occasionally write about what the Party wants them to write about).

Jones, who previously earned journalistic cred by landing a coveted interview with Hitler, tries to arrange an interview with Stalin via the well-connected New York Times Moscow bureau chief Walter Duranty (Sarsgaard), who clearly relishes the fine-living that his position affords him. Working on a tip, Jones decides to travel by train to the Soviet-occupied Ukraine where he witnesses first-hand farm workers exploited for their grain for the industrial cities while they are left to die of starvation. Yet, instead of being lauded for bringing to light the truth of Stalin’s manmade famine, Jones is written off, particularly by Duranty, who publishes a scathing report in The New York Times that Jones’ claims are false which, of course, is echoed by others in the news media.

Disgraced, Jones returns to the U.K. where he works for a small newspaper owned by William Randolph Hearst. During a chance meeting, he convinces the newspaper magnate to allow him to write further about what he saw in the Ukraine, and his report, this time, is well-received. He meets a rising author by the name of George Orwell and relates his story, which becomes the basis for the classic novel Animal Farm, an analogy for the Soviet regime’s brutal treatment of its people after “freeing” them from their imperial government.

Holland has noted that the clash of Jones’s courage and determination against Duranty’s cynical opportunism and cowardice remains as valid today as it was in 1930s.

“Today, we don’t lack corruptible conformists and egoists; we lack Orwells and Joneses. That’s why we brought them back to life,” she wrote.

Mr. Jones, which premiered at the Berlinale Film Festival, was scheduled to have a traditional theatrical release prior to closing of theaters due to the COVID-19, is instead available now on virtual cinema and Digital, and will be available On Demand Friday July 3.

Angela Dawson: You received this script from this previously unknown screenwriter Andrea Chalupa. What sparked your interest in the subject matter?

Agnieszka Holland: Andrea is American but her family origin is the Ukraine. I remember the exact moment I received the script. Normally, (scripts) come to my agent. But I started to read the first 10-15 pages of Andrea’s script, which was another sad story of another disaster and a crime against humanity but with a different point of view of (author) George Orwell. I realized, I’d never before seen a film like this, except in a documentary long ago about Stalin’s famine. I was familiar with that but I realized that the world is not. The world is aware of the Nazi crimes against humanity but people don’t know—and don’t want to know, really—about the communist crimes.

Those crimes have been forgotten and forgiven. The victims have been forgotten, and this is bad for the future because we are not learning the lessons from the mechanics of those crimes. If we don’t think about it and don’t know about it, it can come back in a slightly different form very easily. We can see it in Russia today that some of those mechanics are coming back.

Dawson: Your central character is a journalist who bucks the status-quo of the Western journalists stationed in Moscow who have surrendered their duty of reporting the facts to their readers back home.

Holland: Yeah. What really grabbed me was the reflection of the media in the script. The duty and the role of the journalist, and the corruption of the media, of the “fake news,” of the manipulation of the truth to promote a particular political agenda. Too many in the press accept the lie just because they want to follow somebody’s political, ideological or commercial agenda, and I found it very relevant to today where the press is losing its independence, somehow. The media is very polarized. When you read a newspaper, you can see immediately what party is reading it and writing it. In our times, it’s very important, especially with social media and the Internet, to defend investigative journalism that is objective and honest, and investigates the facts, reports the facts and distributes the truth about the facts.

So, I felt this was an homage to this type of journalism and for this type of journalist. We still have journalists like Gareth Jones, but they often become victims, paying with their lives for their courage and professional honesty and integrity. I felt it would be good to show a movie like that and Gareth Jones, who is virtually unknown, and shed light on his courageous actions.

After World War II and the victory over the Nazis, in a war that probably wouldn’t have been won without the sacrifice of 20 million Russian soldiers, it was difficult to associate with this regime these most terrible crimes (the Holodomor, Stalin’s manmade famine).

Dawson: Your cast includes James Norton as Gareth Jones, along with Peter Sarsgaard as the charismatic and influential New York Times Moscow bureau chief Walter Duranty. Could you talk about the casting them?

Holland: With James, we had been casting for about one year. It’s a vicious circle when you have independent movies where you are dependent on financing but to get the financing, you have to have a star attached. So, you have to have an actor who is bankable to secure the financing, and you have to convince agents to get their clients interested before you have the financing locked in. One agent really liked the subject of the script and she sent it to several clients at her agency, and suddenly we had responses from several actors that I found very interesting. So, I started talking to them and watching their work and imagining this young man in the shoes of Gareth Jones. When I saw James, I saw a quality of quiet intelligence and a bit of the naiveté of the character, as well-educated and slightly arrogant. Of course, in real life, James is not naïve; he is a great actor. He was wonderful to work with, not only because of his talent and his looks but also, he has a gentle soul and very sensitive. So, I could see this man as Gareth and wanted to make this journey with him.  

And Peter Sarsgaard is the type of actor that every director just dreams about working with. I love Peter’s career from his first movies. He’s so talented, so interesting and so intriguing. I’ve always wanted to work with him. I was delighted that he accepted the role and came to Poland. He plays this character, Duranty, with such charisma, and yet he’s so dangerous. Of the actors of this generation I’ve always wanted to work with are him and Philip Seymour Hoffman but, sadly I never got a chance to with the latter.

Dawson: Throughout the film, you cut to scenes of George Orwell (played by Joseph Mawle) writing his novel Animal Farm. Did Orwell and Jones actually know each other?

Holland: We don’t have documentation that they met but I think it’s probable that they met because they ran in the same literary circles and they were interested in the same subjects, and Gareth’s article (on Stalin’s manmade famine) was one of the inspirations for Animal Farm. They also had the same literary agent so it’s unlikely they didn’t know each other. What’s more important is that this offers another point of view, that of Orwell as he writes this novel, which is most clairvoyant and courageous and showing the terrible truth about the communists.

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