By Christopher Campbell | Spout August 18, 2011 at 10:02AM
Forgive my usual instinct to compare new films with old, and docs with narratives, but going into Marina Goldovskaya's new documentary, "A Bitter Taste of Freedom," I couldn't help but think of Joel Schumacher's "Veronica Guerin." There have been other female journalists assassinated for their prying, I'm sure, but Guerin and Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian reporter at the center of "Bitter," are probably the most famous. In Schumacher's drama (and no, I haven't seen John Mackenzie's earlier, names-changed version, "When the Sky Falls"), Guerin is portrayed by Cate Blanchett as more pestering than penetrating, an obnoxiously forthcoming investigator who may not have deserved death but surely had to suspect it as an outcome to her prickly probe into the Irish underworld. In the doc, Politkovskaya is able to represent herself for the most part, through firsthand footage filmed over years by Goldovskaya, her former professor and longtime friend. She hardly seems reckless so much as she was undoubtedly a brave and amiable crusader (in the film she asserts she's a civilian rather than a journalist). In the wake of her murder, Vladimir Putin claimed her writing had no real influence, as if to reject notions the State did her in by identifying her as no Guerin-esque sort of nuisance.
Putin may have been incorrect there, at least if we still accept Politkovskaya's unsolved death as a political assassination of some level, but he was correct to further note the martyring tragedy has a greater impact than any reporting. Especially (to Americans) if she ends up someday with a more mainstream-friendly biopic, a la Guerin or Kathryn Bolkovac, subject of the new, names-changed drama "The Whistleblower." Or, a more conventional documentary take strictly on her life and work, for which she's been referred to as a kind of Mother Theresa of news media. With "Bitter," we get to know her well enough, via the direct material shot for what was to be a less mournful follow-up to Goldovskaya's 1991 documentary on the Politkovsky family amidst perestroika and the fall of the Soviet Union, "A Taste of Freedom," as well as interviews with family, co-workers and big time supporter (and sort of boss) Mikhail Gorbachev (following another great appearance in anti-nuke doc "Countdown to Zero"). Yet it's all so -- understandably -- panegyrical. Obviously, coming from a director with such a personal attachment to her subject. Of course, it also fits with Politkovskaya's own style, which was regularly criticized (and championed, I figure) for being too emotionally involved.
The problem for me, if we're going to be personal, is that I was not moved by the doc's biographical focus. Maybe because I was told of Politkovskaya's death in the beginning and so I wasn't sad when we're told again at the end. Yet even without that knowledge I think Goldovskaya's portrait of her friend is not involving enough for the audience, in spite of all its stirring commendation (though a sequence involving an earlier attempt on her life is powerful). Plus, I wanted a greater understanding of how exactly she was a threat to the Russian government, regardless of Putin's claim, even if the doc never needs to function as an inquiry into the mystery of her murder. "Bitter" is instead far more affecting in its focus on the same material Politkovskaya covered, particularly the most devastating incidents of the Second Chechen War. A mother's testimonial of her experience during the Nord-Ost siege (aka the 2002 Moscow theater hostage crisis), in which both her son and husband were among the civilian victims, is the kind of documentary account that destroys you. Other archival and direct interviews with survivors and grievers, including traumatic coverage of the 2004 Beslan school hostage crisis, are equally substantial. A key consideration is that were it not for Politkovskaya's assassination, we might not hear these accounts today.
Additionally, "Bitter" still works as the sequel to the 1991 film it was intended as and can't seem to let go of. Looking back on the 15 years between dissolution (and "A Taste of Freedom") and the 2006 murder, we're constantly reminded -- if the film's title doesn't enough -- that Russia just went from one horrible form of totalitarianism to another, with a mere 'taste of freedom' in between. Politkovskaya is a celebrated symbol and effect of a certain national problem, which is bigger than any specific person, no matter her apparent influence and saintliness. If that overlying concentration on the post-Soviet atmosphere of Russia is somewhat detrimental to the doc's close focus on Politkovskaya, it still is a significant and pervasive air to have in the context of Goldovskaya's continued personal record of modern Russia, as well as for a much-needed introductory awareness (for myself especially) of the terribly tactless Putin regime. The film still inspires simply by paying attention to such an inspirational figure, but it's true worth is in emulation of Politkovskaya, to show us what she wanted us to see. Now let's keep our eyes open in spite of her absence.
"A Bitter Taste of Freedom" opens in NYC on August 19 and in Los Angeles on August 26, each for a week-long Oscar-qualifying run as part of DocuWeeks.
Recommended If You Like: "My Perestroika"; "A Taste of Freedom"; "Children of Beslan"