Tuesday, August 24, 2004

MOSCOW — A Russian mobster with a string of convictions has produced a TV action drama in which he and his cronies take starring roles.

Complaining that existing television gangster shows are unrealistic, Vitali Dyomochka, known in the underworld as Bondar, shot the seven-part series about his life of crime in Russia’s “wild east,” around the Pacific port city of Vladivostok.

The shaven-headed 33-year-old, who spent his last stint in jail after gunning down a rival, wrote, produced, directed and stars in “Spets,” alongside fellow mobsters.

Ten members of the cast have been imprisoned for a range of crimes since production was completed last year. Another was killed by rivals.

“Filming took quite a while because my colleagues had to keep up with their … affairs as well as learning their lines,” admitted Dyomochka, who was hauled off the set for questioning by detectives on several occasions.

“We know this life from the inside,” he said. “We just staged our lives on the screen.”

The series is named after his character, Spets, and centers on his gang’s brutal fight with other groups for the control of extortion rackets in Ussuriysk, a small city where he lives near Vladivostok.

The hoodlums performed all their own stunts, including fist fights and car crashes. A nightclub and casino were heavily damaged during filming and one cameraman narrowly escaped injury when a car spun out of control.

Critics accuse the mobster of trying to cash in on his criminal notoriety. Dyomochka, however, claims that he has not made a kopek from the series and simply wants to show viewers the truth about how criminals operate.

His home town — seven time zones and about 5,800 miles east of Moscow — has a reputation for organized crime. Despite initial opposition from police, the show is airing on a local television station in Ussuriysk.

A spokeswoman for Ussuriysk TV said the series had divided viewers.

“The audience is split. One camp thinks it’s immoral — they are complaining, ‘What’s the world coming to if the mafia is making a film about itself?’ — and the other thinks they are heroes.

“On the whole, the reaction is mostly positive, for two reasons. The film is made here, it’s ours. And second, it’s real people.”

Policemen were the only protagonists who refused to perform in the series; they were played by actors from a drama group.

The local police force complained about being portrayed as ruthless and violent in the series but decided not to intervene. “Better they make a film than shoot each other,” one officer said.

Dyomochka personally funded the drama but refused to estimate what it had cost, saying only that it was “far from a Hollywood budget.”

He now plans to approach national television stations with a proposal for a feature-length film.

The career criminal has been convicted on four occasions for crimes ranging from extortion to shootings, spending a total of six years behind bars.

He was thrown out of school and college despite achieving high grades and has a reputation as an articulate charmer. His career took off as a teenager when he extorted protection money from the owners of small cooperatives that sold stonewashed jeans and popcorn as capitalism flourished in the late Soviet era.

Dyomochka’s last brush with the law was the most dramatic: He shot a rival during a meeting with other criminals to discuss business.

“I had a reputation that I could take out a gun and shoot someone just like that,” he said. “But the guy deserved it. Not one honest, decent person has ever suffered pain at my hand.”

The drama softens such brutality with plot lines that include a love affair between Spets and one of his victims. One episode sees him fleeing his lover’s husband through a window wearing just his underpants.

Dyomochka said he hoped that filmmaking would became a viable business that could make honest men of him and his friends. “None of us has changed our lifestyle yet,” he said. “We’re just hoping this will take off.”

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