Mr. Jones is a “must see” movie, as I wrote in Why you should watch “Mr. Jones”. A comment on that post led me to this article at Ukraine Today about a panel discussion with the writer and director of Mr. Jones. This post is about that panel discussion, which has deepened my understanding of, and appreciation for, the movie. The image above is a screenshot from that panel discussion, which was held via Zoom and is at this link:
The moderator (upper left) is Anne Applebaum: “an American journalist and historian. She has written extensively about Marxism-Leninism and the development of civil society in Central and Eastern Europe.” She wrote the 2017 book Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, so she is a subject matter expert on the Holodomor, the focus of Mr. Jones.
The discussion was hosted by the Atlantic Council, a Washington, DC-based think tank. The discussion was held on June 22, 2020, about the time that Mr. Jones, which debuted overseas in 2019, was made available on Amazon Prime Video. The discussion was introduced by John Herbst, director of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council and a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.
Following are three take-aways for me from this captivating panel discussion.
The genesis of Mr. Jones
I had assumed that the movie was inspired by Agnieszka Holland. She is an eminent Polish filmmaker, known for several movies about the Holocaust, and she was frequently mentioned in reviews. But I was wrong. Mr. Jones was the brainchild of Andrea Chalupa.
Ms. Chalupa explained that her grandfather had lived in eastern Ukraine and survived the Holodomor. He told stories about it when she was growing up in northern California. When she was in college at the University of California at Davis, studying Russian history, she became interested in the memoir that he had written before he died.
At first she did not know about Gareth Jones. She did know from an early age about Walter Duranty, and she was fascinated by the question of how he could betray his profession. Later she learned about Gareth Jones, and Ms. Chalupa wrote the script to highlight the contrast between the older, established, and cynical Mr. Duranty and the younger, intrepid, and idealistic Mr. Jones. Even so, she said that Walter Duranty was an even sorrier excuse for a man than is depicted in the movie:
The real, historical Duranty was a monster.
(quoting Ms. Chalupa at 33:50)
Ms. Holland had to be persuaded to make the movie. At first she did not want to do another film about the emotionally draining topic of genocide, but she came to believe that Stalin needed to be “unmasked” and held to account for his crimes against humanity fully as much as Hitler:
There is something incredibly unjust in the fact that Stalin’s crimes and Communist crimes altogether didn’t enter the global conscience as much as the Nazi crimes are part of the memory of humanity. Communist crimes vanished somehow. Even with such great books like Solzhenitsyn, and your Gulag, and Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands, and others. It was like forgotten and forgiven. And I find it very unjust and also dangerous.
(quoting Ms. Holland at 16:30)
It was inspiring to see the synergistic partnership between Ms. Holland, with her long and distinguished career, and the younger Ms. Chalupa. Mr. Jones is her first screenplay.
Why is George Orwell in the movie?
Several reviews of Mr. Jones have criticized the inclusion in the movie of scenes of George Orwell writing Animal Farm. The critique is that these scenes detract from the main theme of the film, which is about the reporting (or lack of reporting) of the Holodomor.
I had assumed that the reason for including these scenes was because Chapter VII in Animal Farm eerily parallels the Ukrainian famine, including the propaganda campaign to keep bad news hidden from the outside world. But there was no mention of this in the panel discussion.
I had also assumed that George Orwell and Gareth Jones knew each other, as depicted in the film. They were nearly the same age (two years difference), and the two men moved in similar circles in the British literary world. But, while it is entirely plausible that they might have met, it was noted in the panel discussion that there is no hard evidence that they personally knew each other.
The panel addresses the inclusion of Orwell starting at 34:45, and comes back to this question again at 52:45. A significant reason for the inclusion of Orwell is because he himself had difficulty publishing Animal Farm in 1945. From the 1930s through World War II, the Soviet Union was an ally, and there was extreme reluctance in Britain to publish anything critical of Stalin, whether it be Jones’ news articles about the Holodomor or Orwell’s satirical book Animal Farm where Stalin is represented by the pig Napoleon.
Orwell was bluntly critical of this self-censorship, and he wrote about his concerns in a proposed preface to Animal Farm titled “The Freedom of the Press.” Orwell did eventually find a publisher, but his essay was not included:
“The Freedom of the Press” … was not allowed to be the preface for Animal Farm because his publisher thought it might be controversial.
(quoting Ms. Chalupa at 53:10)
It was not until 1972, long after Orwell’s death in 1950, that this essay was discovered and published in the Times Literary Supplement. It is online here:
Should Walter Duranty’s Pulitzer Prize be revoked?
Anne Applebaum is herself a 2004 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Gulag: A History, and she addresses this question starting at about 39:50 in the panel discussion. She explained that some years ago the Pulitzer Committee did consider revoking Duranty’s prize, and she was asked to submit material to the committee as an expert. She added:
They decided not to take it away, partly because they went back and looked at who else had won the Pulitzer Prize over the hundred or so years that it’s been given out, and there were so many other awful people that they thought, you know, if we start here we’ll never stop.
Both Ms. Chalupa and Ms. Holland smiled at that, and I suppose it is amusing in a way, but it also perfectly illustrates the point: We cannot blindly trust the news to give us an accurate and balanced view of the world, even if it is published in the New York Times and the writer won a Pulitzer Prize.