Tuesday, June 17, 2008

HRW: Letter to Anna

If ever there was a woman who personified strength, dignity, and a commitment to human rights, it was Anna Politkovskaya, the crusading Russian journalist assassinated for investigating the neo-Soviet Putin regime. Unfortunately, there is not much human rights watching going on at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, besides Letter to Anna, Eric Bergkraut’s dogged documentary investigation into her death (trailer here).

Of the thirty two films at the HRW Fest, five focus their fire on Israel and four concentrate on America, clearly safe targets to shoot at. Few films at the fest, besides Letter, tackle a government perfectly willing to murder those who questions its policies, as in the case of Politkovskaya in Putin’s Russia. (To be fair, it sounds like China’s Stolen Children also deserves recognition for taking on the country’s one child policy, but the fest completely ignores Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, and North Korea.) However, the sins of the festival should not be held against Letter, a first-rate documentary.

When Politkovskaya looks into the camera and tells Bergkraut she expects to be killed, it is spooky. Obviously, she knew what she was talking about, having already survived a poisoning attempt (evidently no Polonium was available to those would-be assassins). Politkovskaya made her name exposing human rights abuses (real ones) in Chechnya, again nearly getting killed in the process. It was while filming a documentary on the Russian Dirty War that Bergkraut filmed hours of interview footage with Politkovskaya, which formed the backbone of Letter.

Although one could uncharitably characterize Letter as a film built around outtakes, much of that footage is quite insightful. Perhaps most controversial will be his decision to begin by taking the audience through her assassination step by step. As Bergkraut marshals the facts and circumstances around the event he makes a compelling case against the Putin machine. By American legal standards, he would probably have enough to indict, but not convict. Of course, on a common sense level, the notion that a free-agent in Putin’s Russia would take out a prominent Putin critic without the go-ahead from the highest levels, stretches all believability.

Things are bad in Russia—no question. Relatively few have been willing to publically challenge Putin’s authoritarian rule. Some of those who did join Politkovskaya, like democracy activist Garry Kasparov, participated in the film. We also hear from expat billionaire Boris Berezovsky, perhaps a problematic anti-Putin spokesman, but always a good interview.

Letter would make for good, if depressing, companion viewing with Poisoned By Polonium, as Litvinenko appears in the former and Politkovskaya is also featured in the latter. Politkovskaya had everything to live for, having just heard she was about to become a grandmother. However, she never backed down in her attempts to hold Putin’s government accountable for its crimes. If you want to see what “patriotic dissent” looks like, Politkovskaya is its human face.

Bergkraut makes another credible case against Putin’s criminal reign, and give Susan Sarandon credit for recording the English narration (and Catherine Deneuve for the French), but are people paying attention to the increasingly frightening developments in Russia? Letter screens only once during the fifteen day film festival, Thursday the 26th, at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater.

(Thanks again to La Russophobe for sharing this review with their readers.)