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‘Killing of a Journalist’ Director on Taking Broad Look at Corruption

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Conflict hot spots, war frontlines, and violent protests may seem the most obvious places for journalists to die in the line of duty, but “The Killing of a Journalist,” which recently premiered at Toronto’s Hot Docs, compellingly illustrates how investigative journalism—particular the kind that crunches numbers and sticks its nose in the shady corners where politics and organized crime intersect—is more insidiously deadly.

Directed by U.S. journalist Matt Sarnecki—a senior producer for the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and Bucharest-based since 2013—the film began as an investigation of the brutal murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová in their home in February 2018. It was the first-ever targeted killing of a journalist in Slovakia.

Kuciak, who was self-taught in understanding financial data but highly effective at sifting through numbers for clues to corruption, had frequently focused on combative millionaire businessman Marián Kočner, who verbally threatened the journalist weeks before his death.

While local police dragged their heels, massive protests erupted in the streets. More than a year passed. And then an anonymous tipster delivered a stash of leaked files—70 terabytes of digital data—to investigative journalist Pavla Holcová, the anchoring voice of the film, which includes verité scenes of people involved with the murder, sit-down interviews with family and colleagues, and archival material.

Journos working through the files are shocked at the schemes and at how far the old corruption networks stretched.

Sarnecki, whose earlier documentary for OCCRP, “Killing Pavel,” investigated the murder of journalist Pavel Sheremet in Kyiv in 2016, told Variety about how his latest film evolved from a data-organizing marathon into white-knuckle ride into a country’s soul.

“The Killing of a Journalist” is produced by Signe Byrge Sørensen (“Flee,” “The Act of Killing”) of Denmark’s Final Cut For Real, and edited by Janus Billeskov Jansen (“Flee,” “Another Round”). The collaborative, cross-border investigative reporting platform OCCRP, Frame Film (Czech Rep.) and GotFat Productions (Denmark) are also attached to the production. Shoshi Korman of Cinephil is handling film sales.

Was your previous film a calling card for your involvement in “Killing of a Journalist?”
Yes. We were working with Bellingcat, going through different CCTV, trying to identify license plates. “Killing Pavel” was very forensic in nature, where we had collected an enormous amount of CCTV-type footage that allowed us to piece together a murder investigation, elements of which the police had overlooked. This is basically how I got into this documentary. Right after the murder of Kuciak, I was asked to come to the village where he had lived.

Did you have a clear idea of where the narrative should be heading, since investigations were not closed?
We wanted to start from the local perspective but make it more international, so we worked on opening up the stories. So this film has a much larger dynamic about how corruption actually functions, and that’s what made it interesting to me. When Pavla Holcová gets the leak, we can kind of open the story up to a second level, a turning point, where journalists are able to demonstrate and prove corruption on the upper echelons.

I mean, she was describing over the phone how these messages were connecting these oligarchs and criminals to top politicians.

What was this data trove?
It was what the police had actually seized themselves, an exact duplicate. We had to take apart this case file and organize it because it wasn’t like the police had said: this CCTV camera was here, this phone to that person. We had to put together a spreadsheet to understand what we actually had; it took weeks.

I thought it was interesting you had a sociologist as one of your main interviews.
We knew it was important to tell the story of the 90s in Slovakia. You know, if you look at what actually led to solving the murder, it was these mass protests. And the free press. They were allowed to happen. In Russia, they killed independent journalism, and you can’t protest. The fact that Slovakia still has these democratic values and people have the ability to protest or write, is really important.