Foreign Documentary Gets Up-Close and Personal

Despite the fact that Marina Goldovskaya’s film played to a relatively thin crowd (Maya Angelou’s appearance emptied houses all over campus), “A Bitter Taste of Freedom” left anything but a sour taste in the mouths of audience members.

On Sept. 7 at 7 p.m. in the Ray Stark Family Theater, USC’s School of Cinematic Arts offered its fifth segment of the weekly “Outside the Box Office” program, which showcases foreign, documentary and independent films to students and the public.

Goldovskaya’s addition did not disappoint.

With this extremely intimate and personal film, Goldovskaya, an award-winning Russian filmmaker responsible for 35 pictures, portrays the life of close friend Anna Politkovskaya, who was fatally shot in the entrance to her house in 2006 for her controversial investigative journalism.

“The day she died, her kids came to me and said ‘Will you make a film?’ I said yes,” said Goldovskaya. “But I have to step back a little bit.”

Yet, Goldovskaya does anything but step back in this comfortably raw documentary. How can she, when she has known the subject for 20 years?

“Anna and I were friends,” said Goldovskaya in her director’s statement for the film. “We trusted each other and always had a lot of things to share and discuss. When we met, we couldn’t stop talking, and I could not stop filming. We spoke not only about her work but about everything.”

The entire film is shot home-video style, featuring rough cuts and grainy, shaky cinematography. “A Bitter Taste of Freedom” relies heavily on verbal narration rather than dramatization. There is Anna herself spelling out her motivation for going undercover in dangerous situations to capture stories. There are the family members who recall their personal experiences with Anna and terrorism. Even the director’s voice can be heard over the poignant, piano-laden soundtrack, narrating her relationship with the courageous journalist.

For “A Bitter Taste of Freedom”, Goldovskaya uses a very personal style of filmmaking. She is a one-woman film crew, serving as director, producer, writer and cinematographer, and mostly relying on conversations — not interviews — to tell the story.

“I am alone,” said Goldovskaya in her post-film Q&A. “There is no assistant, no sound person, no gaffer. Nobody but my little camera and I. I am maintaining conversation. That’s why I never had a problem getting a sincere interview. I just walk into the room with my camera already turned on.”

This technique pays off. In the close-ups of Politkovskaya, the camera eagerly displays her wit and charm, painting her as a real person.

“For me I have to fall in love with my character,” said Goldovskaya. “She [Anna] was extremely charismatic. She gave me this wonderful opportunity to enjoy every single minute I was filming her. The way she talks. The way she moves. She was so exciting, so interesting.”

“A Bitter Taste of Freedom”, the follow-up to the 1991 “A Taste of Freedom,” which featured Anna and her husband Sasha Politkovskaya, shows both sides of its subject. There is the serious Anna who is poisoned on a trip to a hostage negotiation and confesses to the camera that she may give up journalism and who suffers the hardships of being a female journalist in censored Russia.

There is also the personal side of Anna who, without the closeness of the film, would have been lost in the fame and renown of her career. In a comic relief scene, Anna plays with her large, loving bloodhound. In one particularly moving scene, Anna directly addresses the camera and explicitly states she wishes her children could be proud of her — to see that her work has its benefits and that she is successful.

She is, in a word, perfectly human.

“For a filmmaker, it’s an ideal life story,” said Goldovskaya. “It’s horrible to say, but this story has courage, life and death, a love story, war, and a dog. All these little things come together, and I try to build them up.”

“A Bitter Taste of Freedom” will be released in theaters in Russia in December with a DVD copy soon to follow.

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