Pro-Kremlin U.S. Filmmaker Pitched Fawning Films to Dictators — Starring Oliver Stone

Credit: James O’Brien/OCCRP

Igor Lopatonok, who promoted pro-Russian narratives about Ukraine and produced Oliver Stone’s lengthy interview with Kazakh strongman Nursultan Nazarbayev, had many other projects in store.

Vladimir Putin, Alexander Lukashenko, and Ilham Aliyev have all been accused of horrific crimes against the citizens of the countries they rule.

But where the world sees brutal dictators, Igor Lopatonok sees opportunity.

The U.S.-based documentary filmmaker already has several controversial projects under his belt. In collaboration with acclaimed Hollywood film director Oliver Stone, he has produced two documentaries on Ukraine that were widely panned as pro-Kremlin propaganda and a hagiographic eight-part mini-series on Kazakh leader Nursultan Nazarbayev.

As it turns out, he had much more in store. In dozens of documents obtained by OCCRP and, Lopatonok laid out plans for a series of fawning documentaries meant to burnish the reputations of the autocratic leaders of Belarus, Azerbaijan, and several other authoritarian nations. A key selling point of at least two of these pitches was the involvement of Stone, who would supposedly conduct on-camera interviews with the dictators.

Credit: Independent Photo Agency/Alamy Live News From left to right, Oliver Stone and Igor Lopatonok.

It’s unclear from the documents — which include internal emails and film synopses as well as pitch brochures — whether Stone was on board with Lopatonok’s plans this time around, or even aware of most of them. None of the projects has come to fruition. Stone and his business manager did not respond to requests for comment.

Lopatonok, in an interview with OCCRP last week, said Stone was fully aware that he had proposed documentaries to several dictators, whom he referred to as “my heroes.”

“You will not make any news with that,” Lopatonok said in response to a question about Stone’s knowledge of the pitches. “You know that, right?”

Lopatonok declined to answer specific questions on the financing of his earlier films, or how the proposed documentaries with Stone would be financed. After an increasingly combative Lopatonok threatened journalists and their sources, shouting “we’re going after you personally,” and “we’re going to destroy you,” an OCCRP editor ended the interview.

Lopatonok did not respond to a follow-up email that invited him to answer questions in writing, instead co-authoring a piece on a website he is affiliated with,, that describes him as a “victim” of OCCRP’s “hit-piece information operations.”

But the documents obtained by reporters show just how explicit Lopatonok was about the true aim of his films and how he apparently sought to pitch them to his subjects: by promising to bolster their reputations on the world stage.

One of Lopatonok’s glossy pitches — titled “Untitled Oliver Stone Documentary” and “About Ilham Aliyev and Azerbaijan” — promises that Stone would “sit face to face” with the Azerbaijani strongman and cover not only “emerging of leader to the head of state rank, but all questions of colorful and fascinating history of Azerbaijan.”

Made with Flourish

Another pitch offers to “bring the dramatic history of modern Belarus and its leader to a wide audience” at a moment when “the attention of the whole world was focused on Belarus.”

“We, as the creators of the film, believe in the wisdom and consistency of Alexander Grigorievich Lukashenko’s actions,” reads the pitch, which is fronted with a black-and-white montage juxtaposing Lukashenko’s face with Stone’s.

The document is undated. It is unclear which “actions” are being referred to, but in 2020, mass pro-democracy protests swept the country before being violently suppressed by President Lukashenko’s regime. It is not clear if Stone was aware of this pitch.

Made with Flourish

Emails between members of Lopatonok’s team suggest that Stone had agreed to participate in at least one of the projects, the Lukashenko film — until the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, which appears to have put a stop to his involvement. (Stone publicly spoke out against the war in March that year, saying that Russia had been “wrong” to invade — although he also argued that Putin had been “baited” into the decision by the United States.)

“Unfortunately, the [Belarus] project was put on pause because of Oliver’s refusal,” wrote producer Igor Kobzev to a crew member in June that year. “All the attempts to find a new interviewer were unsuccessful because of the war in Ukraine (everyone that we contacted refused). I’m in a very difficult situation.” Kobzev did not respond to a request for comment.

Until that roadblock, Lopatonok seemed to have hit upon a promising formula: He had assembled a small team of screenwriters and producers who churned out film ideas to pitch to dictators, making an enticing offer: copious screen time with a world-famous director.

The key to “monetizing” the process was simple, said an insider who worked on the team, and agreed to speak with reporters on condition of anonymity. Lopatonok had figured out how to offer powerful people something they couldn’t resist: Legitimacy on the world stage.

“There’s a star — Stone — who can be sold. That’s it,” the insider said. “They’re being bought for trinkets, only the trinkets are Oliver Stone. The targets jump on it: ‘Oh, I’m with Oliver Stone! I’ll be shown all over the world!’”

This image of Stone as a ticket to worldwide fame may be several decades out of date. Once a critical darling and reliable engineer of box-office success, the Academy Award-winner has more recently been described by Variety magazine as a purveyor of “cantankerous takes.”

In a series of documentaries in the 2000 and 2010s, he provided a sympathetic platform for Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez to tout their leftist political programs. In 2017, he released “The Putin Interviews,” a widely-discussed four-part series of conversations between Stone and Russian President Vladimir Putin. (The New York Times called the interviews “obsequious,” “awkward,” and “embarrassingly generous” to the Russian leader, who was allowed to present himself to U.S. television audiences as a “tough-but-fair leader, beset by the calumny of hypocritical Westerners.” “Does he see Mr. Stone as a journalist, an ally or a fool?” the reviewer wondered.)

Credit: Russian Government/Alamy Stock Photo Oliver Stone (right) interviewing Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin in 2019.

But his recent work with Lopatonok — a vocal supporter of Putin’s regime with a checkered financial history — has received less attention, even as it has ventured further into the realm of what critics say is blatant propaganda.

In his pitch to Aliyev for the “Oliver Stone documentary,” Lopatonok underscores that the planned film would “have a unique positive impact on publicity of [the] president and Azerbaijan.”

Although it’s unclear if Aliyev ever engaged with the pitch, an expert on Eurasia said it would be in line with the strongman’s previous efforts to present his regime as a dynamic, modernizing influence in the region.

“I do see it as in line with all of these potential vectors of image washing — culture, sports, those are the big ones, [and] global events, global conferences,” said Alexander Cooley, a political science professor at New York’s Barnard College and an expert on Eurasian transnational networks.

Post-Soviet rulers often “really want to present themselves as contemporary, worldly modernizers,” he said. “These rulers have always had lobbyists… but what reputation-laundering does is give greater weight and plausibility to their claims about their modernizing intentions.”

But when authoritarian leaders get a Hollywood glow-up, it often comes at the expense of the people they rule over, said Casey Michel, head of the Human Rights Foundation’s Combating Kleptocracy Program. The foundation has spent years campaigning for Hollywood stars to stop working with dictatorial regimes.

“I can’t imagine how dispiriting it must be for citizens in places like Kazakhstan … to watch this American director come and turn into a propaganda mouthpiece for their dictators,” Michel said. “These people know how horrific these regimes truly are — and then they watch this American parachute in, and gobble up all of the dictators’ talking points, without even bothering to push back.

Once Upon a Time… in Dnipro

Lopatonok, 56, was born in a small Ukrainian city near Dnipro, about 250 miles southeast of Kyiv. After studying at a technical university, he worked a variety of jobs before carving out a niche in Ukraine’s film industry by colorizing old Soviet movies.

Credit: Neca Dantas/NurPhoto/Alamy Stock Photo Igor Lopatonok.

He emigrated to the U.S. in 2008, and the following year started a company called Grading Dimension Pictures Inc. It is low-key for a Hollywood entity. Its Facebook page, which describes itself in broken English as “production house specialized on producing move from development to post-production,” has just 31 followers.

Despite having moved to the U.S. and acquired U.S. citizenship, Lopatonok has been unapologetic in echoing pro-Kremlin views on social media and in appearances on Russia’s state-owned media outlet Sputnik. He has also been a guest on “The Politics of Survival,” a YouTube channel hosted by Tara Reade, who claimed during the 2020 U.S. election that President Joe Biden had sexually assaulted her in the 1990s. (After her claims were discredited, Reade defected to Russia and currently lives in Moscow.)

It’s unclear how he first encountered Stone, but starting in the mid-2010s the two men partnered together to make two films about Lopatonok’s native Ukraine — “Ukraine on Fire,” released in 2016, and “Revealing Ukraine,” released in 2019. The documentaries portrayed a Kremlin-friendly view of the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution that saw anti-corruption protests drive out Ukraine’s pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych.

“My attitude to Maidan was immediately negative,” Lopatonok said in a 2016 interview with Komsomolskaya Pravda, a Russian pro-government tabloid, adding that he considered it a coup ‘supported’ by foreign secret services.”

Stone and Lopatonok’s collaborations were ignored by most international media, but praised in Russia, with the pro-government media outlet Izvestia writing that the film had “shocked Europe by exposing the Kyiv elite.”

When “Revealing Ukraine” premiered at the 2019 Taormina Film Fest in Sicily, Stone and Lopatonok were joined on the red carpet by Ukrainian oligarch and politician Viktor Medvedchuk, a close ally of Vladimir Putin who featured prominently in the film and was interviewed by Stone.

Credit: Instagram/@lopatonok A screenshot of an image posted on Instagram by Lopatonok showing him at the Taormina Film Fest with Medvedchuk’s wife, Oksana Marchenko (left), Viktor Medvedchuk (second from left), and Lopatonok’s wife, film producer,Vera Tomilova (right).

U.S. outlet The Daily Beast speculated the film may have been intended as a “PR vehicle” for Medvedchuk at a time when he was staging a political comeback in Ukraine. (The Russian invasion of Ukraine put a permanent end to his political career in that country, since he was accused of treason and ultimately traded to Russia in a prisoner swap.)

Now, internal emails obtained by Vlast suggest that the movie was at least partially financed by Medvedchuk.

“In Taormina…I swapped a few words with [Medvedchuk’s wife] Oksana Medvedchuk and later with Goran,” a screenwriter on the team wrote to Lopatonok’s wife at the time. “Naturally they said that that was it, the budget of the movie is completely covered by them.”

She responded that Goran had sent “a part of Oliver’s fee and paid for the shooting in Monaco,” but then said “they didn’t give him any more.” Reporters were not able to identify Goran’s surname or confirm his role.

Medvedchuk and his wife did not respond to requests for comment, while Lopatonok did not respond to queries on the funding of “Revealing Ukraine.”

Asked in an interview with OCCRP why he was focusing his lens on autocrats, Lopatonok said he was simply making movies about his personal heroes.

“I admire how they rule their people,” he said. ‘I admire that the city of Minsk has clean streets and no homeless people … as in my Los Angeles.”

A Flurry of Pitches

In late 2019, Stone and Lopatonok started working on “Qazaq: History of the Golden Man,” their documentary about Nazarbayev. OCCRP and Vlast reported in 2022 that a charitable foundation controlled by Nazarbayev paid the duo at least $5 million to produce the film.

It aired on Kazakh national television in December 2021 as an eight-part miniseries in praise of Nazarbayev’s achievements. One month later, tiring of the longtime leader’s continued hold on power , thousands of Kazakh protesters took to the streets shouting “Old man, go” in an effort to drive him from power. The documentary is not known to have ever been broadcast in Kazakhstan again.

But still, the Kazakh film may have given Lopatonok a template for how to approach other dictators: They or people close to them would provide the funding, and he’d deliver a hagiography with high production values — and a star interviewer to boot.

Credit: Global Tree Pictures/YouTube A screengrab of the trailer for “Qazaq: History of the Golden Man,” shared by Global Tree Pictures on YouTube.

The documents obtained by reporters show that his team prepared synopses of potential films about at least six other authoritarian governments, promising two of them that Stone would interview their leaders and help tell their “true story.”

Among the topics proposed for Stone’s discussion with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev were the country’s “”success” under the “dynastic rule” of the Aliyev family, and its ongoing conflict with “an Armenia that is losing its stability and teetering on the edge of an abyss.”

A summary of the proposed film makes clear the tenor of Lopatonok’s approach: It describes Aliyev as a “true successor” to his father, the previous president, who had taught him to be a “wise leader.”

“Is the model of state governance chosen by Azerbaijan really so bad?” the summary asks, seeming to anticipate a measure of criticism. “Can you really call the existing state system in Azerbaijan a ‘Cult of Personality’? Or is it just a tribute of people’s respect to a leader who was able to turn the country from poverty into one of the developed, prosperous countries?”

Lopatonok wrote in the pitch that the Aliyev film would cost $15 million to produce — triple what is known to have been paid for the Nazarbayev film.

Another treatment, focusing on Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan, offered the leader a chance to tout his defense of Turkish interests.

It’s unclear how far any of these projects got, but in a 2021 interview at a screening of “Qazaq” in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, Lopatonok discussed his hopes for a future film.

“This country has a very rich and colorful culture,” he told local media. “When I was here in 2012-2013, I learned to distinguish the Karabakh carpets from all others, identifying [them] by their ornament. I would make a good film about Azerbaijan.”

In a 2018 interview, Ibrahim Kalin, then the spokesman for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, confirmed that they had received a pitch for a documentary about Erdogan around the same time Stone was in Turkey. “We are looking at it, we are evaluating it,” he said. “I know the series he made for Mr. Putin before.”

Lopatonok’s Belarusian documentary had already begun pre-production when it was halted after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. A document obtained by reporters shows that it was scheduled to be filmed at locations across Belarus, including Lukashenko’s childhood home and a milk factory. At each site, the president would be asked a series of questions:

Lopatonok’s most ambitious pitch, titled “The War,” looks like it may have been aimed at the Kremlin. It promises a sympathetic appraisal of Russian heroism along the Eastern Front in World War II — a topic Putin is known to be obsessed with — to be narrated by Hollywood star Hugh Grant and produced by Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson.

Grant did not respond to requests for comment. Jackson, through his agent, said that he had never heard of the project and that his name had been used without his permission.

“I find it distressing to have my name and reputation stolen like this, and I’ve put it in the hands of my lawyer,” he said.

The goal of the World War II film, according to the pitch, was to convey the “truth” about Russia’s role in the war to an international audience, while avoiding the appearance of any official links to the country.

Russia, the pitch laments, had been “declared guilty” of instigating the war — a likely reference to historical debates about the Soviet Union’s pre-war alliance with Nazi Germany.

“Any response from the Russian side is perceived in advance as propaganda,” the pitch reads. “That means it has no reason to be accepted.”

Despite the other big names, it’s Lopatonok’s partnership with Stone — whom he refers to as “Maestro” — that is at the center of his sales pitches. In ‘The War,’ Stone was offered up as a screenwriter and narrator as well as a producer.

“This is one magical quality in Oliver films – they aging [sic] nicely, like a fine wine,” Lopatonok wrote in a 2022 Instagram post. “I’m very proud that my films with Maestro carry on this quality as well.”

Kevin G. Hall, Kelly Bloss, Dan Mika, and Julia Wallace contributed reporting.

Fact-checking was provided by the OCCRP Fact-Checking Desk.

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