A journalist gets laid off. The economic situation is terrible, he is told. But the young man senses that he is in the middle of history " and someone has to write it.
As a freelancer, he travels to a place where nobody seems to be suffering. In fact, the mood is celebratory. He finds this utopian society suspicious. An ex-colleague is found dead days after they spoke on the phone about a "huge story"; the local operator disconnected the call before any details were revealed. The journalists are confined to one area, one hotel. The government urges them to write about the development of the country. About the factories. The engineering. The prosperity. The people believe in the leader of this revolution. They believe he is necessary for the industrial boom: If not him, then who?
But the scrappy journalist manages to escape his confinement " and put his own life on the line to expose a shocking humanitarian crisis, the secret of a stifling regime. He does not need to tell a story. He simply reports the facts.
His name is Gareth Jones. It is 1933, and after being relieved of his post as foreign advisor to the ex-British prime minister, the Welshman travels to Moscow. He wants to interview Stalin, only months after snagging a rare interview with upcoming Nazi Party leader Adolf Hitler. The ground is quaking in Europe, and Gareth wants to be the human Richter scale. What he instead returns with is a first-hand account of the Holodomor, the devastating Ukranian famine where millions starved to death, hidden away from the eyes of Western democracy in a remote geographical closet. The man's experience is dramatized in Mr Jones, Polish director Agnieszka Holland's urgent biographical thriller.
The film, starring James Norton, pulls no punches at a storytelling level. It opens with a disorienting shot of squealing pigs in a barn. The camera floats into a cabin upfront to reveal a writer punching the keys of his trusted typewriter. The character of his new novella is named "Mr Jones." It is not long before the identity of this author dawns on us: George Orwell. The implication is eye-catching: Animal Farm might be an allegory for what we are about to see in the film. Imagine that. You battle Hitler but end up broken under Stalin.
Soon, we are knee-deep in Jones' journey. He is incessantly being watched and followed. The dread of the invisible 'system' feels sinister. One can sense the Orwellian roots of 1984. A woman (Vanessa Kirby) Gareth meets denies him that parting kiss. Maybe she does not want to get attached to someone whose questions are likely to kill him. None of this is said aloud, but it is just the way the actress reacts " hands flailing, violently resisting the prospect of loss " that suggests she has been burnt before. He plans to smuggle himself into a cordoned-off Ukraine, she senses he might not return. Gareth's time in the mysterious land of Ukraine " after he hoodwinks his propaganda-spewing "handler" and wanders into snowy hell " is shot with unrelenting starkness. Village after village is blanketed in blinding whiteness, with frozen corpses lining up yards and streets, hollowed children craving for a piece of bread, and famished families resorting to cannibalism. The film here adopts the bleached palette of a survival drama without survivors. The scene where Gareth identifies the famine is startling. It starts with him casually peeling an orange " the fruit glows like a saffron sun in a train compartment full of greyscale hunger " and ends with him watching bony bodies pounce on the discarded peel. It is clear that, from this moment on, Gareth will never be the same man again.
But despite the cinema of it all, Mr Jones primarily works as a journalism movie. I do not mean the Hollywood newspaper narrative (Spotlight, The Post), where a group of intrepid reporters uncovers a scandal against great cultural and political odds. Mr Jones is far more primal and individualistic " Gareth faces mortal danger " and is therefore reflective of a more oppressive threat. The journalist here is several characters at once: a prisoner, a spy, a survivor, a citizen, a dissenter, and a speaker. The thing about this specific kind of journalism movie is that, irrespective of the history being probed, it is always timely. It is always worryingly relevant in some part of the world or another. The past is inextricably linked to the future.
The first paragraph of this article, for instance, is about the Soviet Union in the decade preceding a second World War. But it might just as easily apply to North Korea today, or Putin's Russia, or China, or Iran, or Idi Amin's Uganda of the '70s. Or, perhaps more pressingly, a pandemic-era India. It is eerily fitting that Mr Jones is streaming on MUBI in May 2021. It is not just the brutal physicality of a man-made tragedy. It is also the collective courage of truth-seekers.
Almost every Indian journalist covering the crippling second wave of COVID-19 at this moment is a new-age Gareth Jones.
In the face of pay cuts, financial duress, gag orders, healthcare horrors, and rising infections, the country's reporters have become stringers at heart. Irrespective of professional affiliations, each of them is in a lonely war against authority. Yet, their work has steadily unearthed a forsaken people in broad daylight, enabling the Western press to recognise " and amplify " the borders of an unprecedented crisis.
In a way, the bone-chilling sequences of Gareth fumbling for his camera to "document" the suffering in the Ukranian wilderness mirror the moral muscle of those like photojournalist Danish Siddiqui, whose haunting pictures have provided history with a high-definition face and three-dimensional body. Gareth's perplexed voice on his first night in merry Moscow " where he witnesses a booze-drenched nightclub orgy involving others of his 'kin' " mirrors the stance of those like sports journalist Sharda Ugra, who has consistently condemned the carnival excesses of the ongoing Indian Premier League. And for every idealistic Gareth Jones there is Walter Duranty. The Moscow Bureau chief of The New York Times is revealed to be a Pulitzer Prize-winning stooge of the Russian establishment " he artfully paints the picture that the privileged want to see, in turn embodying the TRP-popping discourse of select Indian news channels.
The animal metaphors that Orwell uses to circumvent the scrutiny of an image-conscious administration is not too different from the subtle language-acrobatics the cultural commentators of today employ to uphold the norms of free speech. Truth to power is not spoken but narrated. It is difficult to be direct, but not impossible. Necessity is the mother of invention, after all. They used to write about pigs, cows, and cats, and " as shown in Mr Jones " request potential publishers to read between the lines. Now, some of us write about historical biopics, and request our readers to live between the lines. Everything and nothing has changed. I do not need to report the facts. I am simply telling a story.
Mr Jones is streaming on MUBI.