by Alexandra Marie Daniels
Someone tried to silence Anna Politkovskaya. An investigative journalist with a bleeding heart, she was assassinated on October 7, 2006 at age 48 in her apartment building in Moscow.
As expressed in the opening scenes of the new film A Bitter Taste of Freedom, Anna was Russia’s conscience. Despite fear, earlier assassination attempts and arrests, she exposed the wrongdoings of Russian authorities and became a voice for the innocent victims of the Chechen war.
As part of the International Documentary Association's 15th Annual DocuWeeks™ Theatrical Documentary Showcase I had the opportunity to sit down with Marina Goldovskaya and discuss their friendship and her new film.
Anna Politkovskaya and her husband Sasha were former students of Goldovskaya at Moscow University and went on to careers in journalism. In 1991 Goldovskaya made the documentary film A Taste of Freedom with the Politkovsky family as her main characters. Through Anna and Sasha she created a visual portrait of Russian life.
As a documentary filmmaker Goldovskaya's goal is to preserve history. As a woman experiencing a transformative period in Russian history she did not hesitate to film every possible moment she could.
“With Gorbachev,” Goldovskaya explains, “It was euphoric…Freedom was something we didn’t know, and we still know very little about…We thought, this is the beginning of a completely new era…My goal was to make a film to show the changes, where they are going, and I started shooting.”
But Goldovskaya feels that “in order to make a film about a political issue, it has to be very well-grounded in the reality, in life.”During the making of A Taste of Freedom, Sasha was often away on assignments and Goldovskaya spent many hours filming conversations with Anna at the Politkovsky home while she raised her two children. A Bitter Taste of Freedom spans their 20-year friendship.
Taking time with her words as she takes time with her coffee, Ms. Goldovskaya explains “there are people with very thick skin…There are people with thin skin and there are people without skin…I have a thin skin. I really take things very close to heart…Anna was a person with no skin at all.” Deeply affected by what she saw, Anna’s emotions were raw and it was for this reason that Anna did her work and genuinely did it well.
Despite her fear Anna traveled regularly back of forth between Chechnya and Moscow. Ms. Goldovskaya recalls a moment in the film. “I especially loved it when [Anna] says, ‘I go to Chechnya, it’s scary there.’ She was making investigative journalism.”
She explains how Anna disguised herself as a Chechen woman by wearing long skirts; how despite poor vision, Anna would remove her glasses because Chechen women did not wear glasses; and how she put a scarf on her head to hide.
“She would go there and talk to people in villages, in private homes, and of course she never knew what was going to happen. A couple of times she was arrested by the Federal Russian Guard. She continued to do it, risking her life, it was a part of her.”
Anna became a human rights activist defending the innocent civilians whose lives were destroyed. “Shocked and traumatized,” she felt she had no choice but to report on the atrocities of war. The work was dangerous but Anna never looked back.
The chief editor of Novaya Gazeta, the newspaper where Anna worked, said many times “stop going, I am afraid for you;” but Anna maintained an attitude of “if not me, then who?”
Goldovskaya never accompanied Anna on her trips to Chechnya because Anna felt it was too dangerous. After she was arrested and had spent a number of days in a jail cell, Goldovskaya asked her, “Anya, you are doing such a risky thing...It is so dangerous and she says, ‘Yeah, I know that it is dangerous but let’s not speak about it…what I am doing, this is what I have to do.’”As a journalist Anna was not able to ignore her responsibility to society. Russian authorities did not like her reporting from Chechnya and there were also colleagues that had very mixed feelings.
Dmitry Bykov, a writer interviewed in the film, believed that “her point of view was deeply affected by what she saw,” and commented that “by virtue of her passionate female concern for Chechnya she was losing her objectivity.” Bykov believed that “a woman cannot remain objective in a war due to her feminine nature.”
Striking me as absurd, I asked Goldovskaya about Bykov’s comment. She explains “it is a part of Russian patriarchal society, the remnants…an inescapable part of Russian mentality.” She tells me “Anna Politkovskaya made many of her colleagues uncomfortable. Her feminine perspective even disgusted some.”
Despite the conflicting feelings towards her, Anna followed her raw emotions. She became a voice for the Chechen people - establishing relationships and becoming someone they could trust. In 2002, Politkovskaya was asked to be a negotiator during the Nordost theater siege by armed Chechen rebels. Very sadly, Anna was not able to help. Thirty-nine rebels along with at least 129 hostages were killed when Russian forces pumped toxic gas into the theater to end the raid.
Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev describes Anna in the film as “a remarkable journalist…because she was a remarkable person.” He explains that she was strong and ethical and went on to say that “life is always hard for such people…In her heart and in her mind she wanted to see the country improved, for the people to feel…confident. And free.”
Anna’s conscience propelled Goldovskaya to make A Bitter Taste of Freedom; and through it, she continues to live. After seeing the documentary and speaking with Marina Goldovskaya I believe we should all ask, “if not me, then who?”
About the Author:
Alexandra Marie Daniels is a writer, dancer, and filmmaker. She has made three films with the director Bernard Rose, including The Kreutzer Sonata (2008) and Mr. Nice (2010) and has worked with the director Martyn Atkins as a script supervisor on concerts such as Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood: Live from Madison Square Garden and The Crossroads Guitar Festival 2010. Alexandra is The WIP's Arts, Culture, and Media Editor.