Film Review: A Bitter Taste of Freedom

This quietly passionate documentary about the murdered crusading Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya has its ragged edges but still delivers a stinging message about the tragedy that is modern Russia.
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“I’m 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.