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Mr. Jones - in the Service of Truth. A Biographical Thriller by Agnieszka Holland

This year the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Film Festival (MSPIFF40) celebrated its 40th anniversary with a tribute to Al Milgrom. Milgrom laid the foundation for the Festival when he created the University Film Society in 1962, which is now the MSP Film Society. Agnieszka Holland was one of his favorite directors. The tribute included a showing three of her award-winning movies; the 1990 Europa, Europa, her newest film, the 2020 Charlatan (winner of five Czech Lion Awards) 2019 award, and the 2019 Mr. Jones, 2020 Palm Springs International Festival, Winner.

Mr. Jones is set as a quasi-documentary historical drama with elements of a spy movie unexpected turns. It quickly evolves into a chilling account of the ruthlessness of the Soviet regime, its far-reaching expert propaganda machine, and exposes some of its workings. The film takes on the essence of honest journalism in search of truth, away from vested interests and politics. It explores the powers of information and the dangers of disinformation and fake news that continue to be very relevant.

The film is set in Europe of the 1930s during Hitler's ascent to power and Stalinist Soviet Russia aspiring to world dominance. What starts as a bit cocky but naive jaunt of a young, ambitious, idealistic, at times pretentious aspiring journalist becomes a horrific journey. The main character, Gareth Jones, quickly gets overwhelmed with the scale and the magnitude of unimaginable evil he faced on his journey in the Soviet Union and through starved Ukraine under its rule in 1933. His discoveries exposed atrocities of Stalin rule and may have inspired George Orwell’s seminal book Animal Farm.

Mr. Jones's main character is set apart from the movie’s supporting character, Walter Duranty, a real-life 1932 Pulitzer Prize winner for his articles on the Soviet Union that helped Stalin mask the extermination operations that claimed millions of lives. Duranty’s character is portrayed with little nuance, even for a tragic and demoralized individual who used his skills and connections in the service of Soviet propaganda. In 2003 Duranty’s employer, the New York Times, finally admitted that his articles denying the Great Famine were “some of the worst reporting to appear in this newspaper.”

The minimalist form of Agnieszka Holland's cinematography, especially in the middle part of the film, where our hero roams around Ukrainian villages affected by the Great Famine (or Holodomor), enhances and intensifies the experience without unnecessary pathos or sentimentality. The haunting images will remain in the viewers' memory for a long time. Mr. Jones is certainly one of Agnieszka Holland’s most important films and makes us think about how societies and political elites can be manipulated and deceived by false information.

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Agnieszka Holland was born in Warsaw in 1948. Her grandparents were victims of the Holocaust during WWII. Her mother, Irena Rybczyńska-Holland (b. 1925), was a resistance fighter and participated in the 1944 Warsaw uprising. In 1967, Agnieszka moved to Czechoslovakia to study at Prague Film Academy (FAMU). While studying in Czechoslovakia, she experienced a so-called Prague Spring. Agnieszka Holland spent several weeks in prison suspected of her contact with the anti-Soviet opposition. In December 1981, when the Polish Communists introduced martial law, Agnieszka Holland was in Sweden. She decided not to return to communist Poland. Currently, she lives between Poland, France, and the United States. Agnieszka Holland is a three-time Oscar nominee.

More about Agnieszka Holland, see: Grzegorz Litynski “Agnieszka Holland became the President of the European Film Academy”, MPMS website, December 31, 2020:

Further reading:

MSPIFF Milgrom Tribute

Serhii Plokhii “The movie exposes the fake news campaign behind Stalin's Ukrainian genocide.” July 27, 2020.

Askold Krushelnycky “Ukrainians want pro-Stalin writer stripped of Pulitzer”, The Guardian, May 4, 2003

New York Times Statement About 1932 Pulitzer Prize Awarded to Walter Duranty

The Holodomor Museum