Tuesday, August 16, 2011

DocuWeeks NY ’11: A Bitter Taste of Freedom

Last week, the obedient Russian “press” dutifully “reported” a silly story about Putin, Russia’s gangster-in-chief, “discovering” Greek urns while on a diving trip. Anna Politkovskaya never wrote such propaganda pieces. As a result, she was assassinated nearly five years ago. While Politkovskaya’s murder has become a symbol of Russia’s regression back into Soviet-style dictatorship, for those close to the crusading journalist, her loss is a more personal tragedy. Longtime friend and filmmaker Marina Goldovskaya mourns the Politkovskaya she knew in A Bitter Taste of Freedom (trailer here), which screens this Friday in New York during the Oscar-qualifying DocuWeeks 2011.

In happier times, Goldovskaya had previously profiled Politkovskaya and her future ex-husband Alexander, who was then better known than she for his work as a television presenter. During the filming of A Taste of Freedom, Perestroika was in its endgame, when constitutional democracy seemed like a very real future prospect. The Yeltsin disappointments and the Putin repression would add the bitterness to Goldovskaya’s second documentary featuring Politkovskaya.

As one of the few (perhaps only) journalists willing to challenge the government’s official lines on the dirty war on Chechnya and the raid on Moscow theater, Politkovskaya earned a fair degree of celebrity as well as powerful enemies. To a degree, she has become an iconic figure. However, Goldovskaya makes a concerted effort to capture the muckraker’s private side. The audience gets a fuller sense of her humor and her self-effacing nature in personal conversations Goldovskaya fortuitously recorded on film. There is also something unexpectedly alluring about the intelligent and spirited woman that never comes across in the familiar photos of Politkovskaya peering owlishly through her eye-glasses.

Putin allies hoping to besmirch Politkovskaya as a neglectful mother will be further frustrated by Goldovskaya’s follow-up documentary. According to her daughter, somehow Politkovskaya always tended to her family’s needs, even while titling at Kremlin windmills. Yet, though there is a deliberate focus on Politkovskaya the flesh and blood person, Bitter is still a newsworthy film, including chilling footage of Politkovskaya in the hospital still suffering from the Rostov-on-Don poisoning incident, the first clear-cut attempt on her life. We also learn the American embassy unequivocally expressed to the journalist concerns for her safety.

By presenting a fully dimensional portrait of Politkovskaya, Bitter never feels like stilted hagiography. The fact that she was actively pursuing new romances, while looking after her children as best a parent can, leads one to fully appreciate her commitment and ultimately her sacrifice. Highly recommended, Bitter provides a compellingly intimate portrait of heroism. Distributed internationally by Yellow Affair, it runs for one week at the IFC Center beginning this Friday (8/19), as part of the second wave of DocuWeeks New York, hopefully with many more screenings to come.