WASHINGTON — The telephone rang at the end of an excruciating day of pain and sorrow. Renowned documentary filmmaker Marina Goldovskaya had spent October 7, 2006 trying to come to terms with the death of her friend, Russian investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who had been shot in the foyer of her apartment building in Moscow earlier that day. Now Anna’s son Ilya was on the phone, asking if Goldovskaya would make a film about his mother.
“I will, Ilyusha, I will. But first I have to come to terms with all this,” she answered.
Five years later, she has made good on that promise. Her moving tribute to Politkovskaya, “A Bitter Taste of Freedom,” has won awards and been shown at various European and American film festivals. But it has only been shown in Russia at a few private screenings.
Until December 2, when its official Moscow premiere was scheduled for the Khudozhestvennyi film theater as part of the Artdocfest documentary film festival.
Goldovskaya planned to be there to present it and to once again remember her friend.
Politkovskaya is thought to have been killed in a targeted assassination for her reporting on Chechnya and years of atrocities perpetrated against civilians during Russia’s two wars there. No one has yet been convicted of her murder.
During a recent visit to Washington, where the film was shown at George Washington University, Goldovskaya told RFE/RL that while many films have been made about Politkovskaya, some quite good, they all focused on her reporting and investigations but not on the woman behind the stories.
Goldovskaya said she wanted the Anna whom very few people knew to come to life on the screen, and for viewers to realize what a huge loss her death really was.
“This is what plagued me: that she’s gone, that we’ve lost such a person,” Goldovskaya said. “So I decided that I would make a film about the person whom we lost.”
She added that she thinks she made the right decision because the film will resonate for a long time.
“A film about a current political situation will very quickly be displaced by another political situation, but this film should always remind us of the person that we lost and what she gave us,” Goldovskaya said. “I believe that those who will see the movie will get something spiritual out of it. I’m not being naive about this, I’m serious. She gave me an awful lot, she gave me strength.”
Goldovskaya’s friendship with Anna spanned many years. They first met when Goldovskaya was a professor of journalism at Moscow State University. Anna’s future husband, Aleksandr Politkovsky, was her favorite student.
A 2007 rally to remember slain journalist Anna Politkovskaya in MoscowA 2007 rally to remember slain journalist Anna Politkovskaya in Moscow
In 1990, Goldovskaya made a film examining the effects of perestroika on a young Russian family. “A Taste of Freedom” featured Politkovskaya and her husband, who by then was a well-known presenter of the popular news-magazine program, “Vzglyad.”
Over the years, she videotaped many of her conversations with Anna, so that — as she said — when the two of them were “old biddies,” they could look at footage of themselves when they were younger and remember those heady years.
From the film’s beginning — which shows a newscast announcing Politkovskaya’s murder — to its end — a shot of her walking into the snowy grayness of a Moscow winter 20 years earlier — the audience gets a glimpse into a rarely seen side of Anna. We see her working in Chechnya, mediating in hostage crises, accepting a journalism award in New York, Mikhail Gorbachev eulogizing her. But we also see her preparing food for her children, putting on make-up, walking her dog, and giddily admitting that she has fallen in love. The iconic journalist is revealed as witty and self-effacing, a loving mother. The deep sense of responsibility she feels about the actions of her government is unmistakable.
In Need Of Role Models
The fact that Kremlin authorities have tried to prevent distribution of other controversial documentaries — including “Khodorkovsky,” which looks at the life of imprisoned oil tycoon and outspoken Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky — didn’t lessen Goldovskaya’s determination to show her film to the audience she believes needs to see it most.
“Perhaps I’m wrong, but I think this film is very needed now because people need positive role models — if we can say that about a murdered journalist,” Goldovskaya said. “She was such a good and decent person, responsible, so pure. People like this have to be shown [because] we’re no longer used to people like that. Earlier, we were told about personal examples. Where are these personal examples? We don’t see very many of them.”
Goldovskaya, who has been a professor at the University of California’s Los Angeles School of Theater, Film, and Television Biography since 1995, wanted to make a personal film and avoid politics; but by its very nature, any film about Anna Politkovskaya’s life is bound to at least touch on the subject. “A Bitter Taste of Freedom” is both a tribute to her murdered friend and a testimony to the shattered hopes for democracy in Russia.
The story is dedicated to “Anya,” as her friends called her, but the film is also about Russia — its perceived failed experiment with democracy and regression into neo-Soviet authoritarianism. The disappointments of the Yeltsin era coupled with the repression of the Putin years set the tone of regret that runs through the film.
Asked if she really believed that a sense of bitterness tainted Russians’ feelings about the last 20 years, Goldovskaya said that she did.
“The thing is that we were young then — I’m talking about myself, my generation — we thought that everything is so easy to accomplish; here’s democracy and ‘liberty will gladly greet us at home,’ like in those poems, remember?” Goldovskaya said. “But the thing is, everything must be achieved with hard work, with conscientiousness, with care. To achieve anything, one must work, but we just blew it all, step by step. And that’s why of course the word bitter came into play, the bitter taste of freedom.”
Five months after Politkovskaya’s murder, her daughter Vera gave birth to a girl. She named her Anna.