Bitter Taste of Freedom played at Montreal's 2011 World
Chris Barsanti, who writes for FilmJournal
and the blog The
Barsanti Nexus, gave the film 3.0 out of 4.
ratings, click HERE.
not a journalist,” the late Anna Politkovskaya says
in A Bitter Taste of Freedom, her friend Marina Goldovskaya’s
documentary about her legacy, “I’m a civilian.”
The distinction clearly didn’t matter to the still-unknown
persons who gunned down the 48-year-old woman in 2006. To
them, Politkovskaya was a nuisance and an embarrassment, someone
to be removed from the situation in a moment of violent finality
like so many others who have run afoul of powerful interests
in Russia. She was most likely murdered for her groundbreaking
reporting on the many years of atrocities visited upon civilians
in Chechnya during Russia’s two wars there, leaving
one less voice in an already desperately weak chorus of critique.
It’s that degraded sense of a robust public sphere which
motivates so much of Goldovskaya’s film, whose outlook
on the post-Soviet era can be accurately judged by its title.
Although ostensibly a story about the legacy of Politkovskaya
-- a former student of the director’s whom she had previously
filmed for 1991’s perestroika-studying Taste of
Freedom -- the documentary edges more into being a referendum
on the benighted state of Russia itself. A hint of what the
state is can be gauged in the clip Goldovskaya shows of Politkovskaya’s
sister talking about how she’d called Anna such a “dreamer”
for possibly thinking that anything in Russia could change.
The film unsurprisingly has a fairly grim view of the current
state of affairs, briefly running through the short window
of optimism that followed the fall of the Soviet system before
showing (partially with a surprisingly forthright and honest
interview with Mikhail Gorbachev) just how definitively that
sense of freedom has been expunged from Russian life.
No matter what the prevailing mood was, though, Politkovskaya
seemed determined to plunge on ahead. Much of the film consists
of the filmmaker’s intimate interviews with its subject.
She’s direct and driven, with an intelligent humor gleaming
in her sparkling eyes and the air of an unusually engaged
academic about her. Politkovskaya was in some ways being modest
about claiming that she wasn’t a journalist, but as
A Bitter Taste of Freedom shows, her heartfelt compassion
for the suffering of the Chechens went far beyond the requirements
of her job. “People came to her like Lenin,” one
interviewee says, marveling (as do many others) at the depth
of feeling she not only had for the people being butchered
and degraded by multiple barbaric assaults but also for how
powerfully those feelings were reciprocated by Chechens. As
Goldovskaya so painfully shows, that bond didn’t seem
to be one that Politkovskaya could break as she trudged through
the battlefield mud, no matter how many warnings and death
threats she received.
Goldovskaya could possibly have been too close to her subject
to make a truly great film about this astonishing and heroic
woman (though that job is still available for any who would
like to take up the challenge). Her film is too raggedly constructed
to feel like the last word. But as an introduction to the
towering humanity that this one bespectacled, grey-haired
woman with the prankish and professorial air showed to the
world, one could certainly do worse.