SXSW Film: From Russia With Subs

The unbelievable true tale of submarine smuggling in Operation Odessa

Ever hear the one about a Russian gangster, a Miami playboy, and a Cuban spy conspiring to sell a Russian submarine to a Colombian drug cartel? It’s no joke. Operation Odessa tells a true-crime story so surreal, you’ll swear that it must be fiction, even as photos, video, and recorded tape corroborate the multi-perspective story being told.

In 1997, the story was front-page news across the globe, and now it returns with a SXSW world premiere before debuting on Showtime on March 31. Director Tiller Russell has crossed multiple continents to not only tell the stories of all three accused criminals, but also the DEA Special Agents, U.S. Marshals, and U.S. attorneys who worked the case. His central subject is the larger-than-life Ludwig “Tarzan” Fainberg, a Russian migrant who went from mob enforcer to smuggler trying to simultaneously cross the DEA, Colombian cartels, and the Russian mob with his friends.

Austin Chronicle: At what point did this story grab you?

Tiller Russell: About seven or eight years ago, I was working with the producers on another project. I had followed Tarzan’s story for a long time, and I thought to myself, “This has got to be one of the most amazing true-crime capers of the last 25 years,” but nobody had really gotten the whole story. So, I talked to a narc at the DEA who gave me a tip. “There’s this guy Tarzan, he’s in this Panamanian prison, [and] he’s got a Blackberry.” He gave me Tarzan’s cell phone number. I called him, he answers and says, “This is Tarzan,” and I go, “This is Tiller, and I want to tell your story.” And Tarzan says, “OK, you come down here, smuggle yourself into this prison, and we’ll see what happens.” That’s how it began.

AC: Tarzan, why were you immediately receptive to this guy who figured out how to get in touch with you?

Ludwig “Tarzan” Fainberg: You know, first of all, it was not immediate. It was a strange situation, this guy calling. I was sure that he would not come because through those years, I received so many propositions, and I denied all of them. It was American TV, Israeli TV, some Russian show, and I denied everybody, even German TV. When I first spoke to Tiller, I really didn’t like him at first, he was very pushy. He was very right to the point. I was not ready for that. So I said get yourself to this prison, maybe we can talk.

Two weeks pass by, and I’m called to the office of the director of the prison. I go, “The director of the prison wants to talk to me … strange.” I go to the office of the director, and I see all this lighting. I see three cameras, the crew, and then this little guy Tiller running around telling me, “Oh, Tarzan, I’m so happy to meet you, I came all this way” and I go “Whoa whoa whoa, I’m glad you came here, but I didn’t know that you were planning to film me, and I’m not ready to talk to you yet.”

For two hours, he was talking to me, trying to convince me, and I told Tiller, “No, I’m still not ready, I’m still in jail, I still don’t know who you are.” He was trying to tell me, “Look Tarzan, I brought $10,000 for you hidden in my underwear, I almost died to bring this money to the prison.” You know what it is in prison, $10,000? You can BUY a prison in Panama for that money. I denied and said “No.” He was after me for two years. He was persistent, and I tell you, if it weren’t for Tiller, this story would not have come up. He provoked me to tell my story, and I love the guy.

TR: This was after he did a jailbreak from the Panamanian prison and crossed into Costa Rica, went to Cuba, and then got repatriated in Moscow. Once he got back to Moscow, he hit me back and went, “I’m out, it’s on, get over here.” And so it went.

Operation Odessa

Documentary Spotlight
Tuesday, March 13, 5:15pm, Alamo Lamar
Friday, March 16, 7:45pm, Alamo Ritz

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SXSW, SXSW Film 2018, Operation Odessa, Showtime, Tiller Russel, Ludwig “Tarzan” Fainberg

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