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on Aug 17, 2011

One of Russia’s most celebrated filmmakers, Marina Goldovskaya, had led a colorful and peripatetic life as a nonfiction filmmaker specializing in docu-diaristic portraits of poets, artists, leaders and everyday people. Currently head of the documentary program at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film, and Television, Goldovskaya was also eyewitness to a half century of turbulent history, which she has spent the past 40 years meticulously archiving on celluloid and digital video. After attending the State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK) in the 1960s, she quickly established herself as a leading cinematographer in a business dominated by men, a fertile period she details in her recent memoir Woman with a Movie Camera: My Life as a Russian Filmmaker. By the early seventies, she turned to producing and directing her own documentary features for Russian and European television. Her 1989 film Solovky Power (Vlast’ Solovetskaya) — the first in Russia to acknowledge the horrific and painful legacy of the Soviet gulags — won the prestigious Joris Ivens Special Jury Prize at IDFA. The film was banned in her home country but traveled internationally and brought her to the attention of festival audiences worldwide. Since then, she has won numerous awards and honors for films such as The House on Arbat Street and Shattered Mirror, while also making forays into less morally freighted topics with film portraits of Peter Sellers and Allen Ginsberg.

Goldovskaya’s latest film, A Bitter Taste of Freedom, is a soulful homage to her bosom friend Anna Politkovskaya, the fearless investigative reporter who was murdered on her doorstep by an unknown assailant in 2006, presumably for her outspoken criticism of the government-sanctioned war in Chechnya. More revealing than previous films about Politkovskaya, recipient of an Amnesty International Global Award for Human Rights Journalism, A Bitter Taste of Freedom blends bits of contextual archive and in-the-field photos with diaristic footage the filmmaker shot in Anna’s home during their many years of heart-to-heart conversations, beginning in 1990. (Goldovskaya became close to Politkovskaya while making A Taste of Freedom about Anna’s husband Sasha Politkovsky, a prominent TV journalist known for his frank commentaries on contemporary politics. She tracked him for six dramatic weeks during the height of popular demonstrations in the Soviet Union, when the final vestiges of totalitarianism gave way to the epoch-shifting imperatives of glasnost and perestroika.) Colleagues, family members, former editors and even Mikhail Gorbachev appear onscreen to eulogize the fallen writer and activist, but the film’s best moments are with Anna herself, a charismatic presence admirably devoted to both her personal causes and the well-being of her two children, despite the near constant threats on her life.

Filmmaker spoke with Goldovskaya about Politkovskaya’s life and work, and her compulsive desire to document history. A Bitter Taste of Freedom opens Friday at IFC Center in New York as part of the 15th annual DocuWeeks program.

Filmmaker: Ted Turner and Roland Joffe asked you to make the film A Taste of Freedom in 1990. How did that come about and where was it going to air?

Goldovskaya: Well, I made the first film in the Soviet Union about the gulags (Solovky Power), which were created by Lenin in 1923. It was banned for months and then Gorbachev’s changes started to happen. It was seen by some Americans in Moscow, and there was a lot of interest, so we sent it to Sundance and they showed it. They wrote me a letter and told me the film was overwhelmingly better than anything else — it was when documentary was not such a hot topic, you know? Robert Redford invited me to come [to the festival] and so I went. After this film, Roland Joffe called me up and said, “We want you to make a film about perestroika.”

Filmmaker: And that brought you to Sasha Politkovsky, the Russian television journalist.

Goldovskaya: Yes. I was teaching at Moscow State University — I was so young when I came to teach. And I thought immediately about the family of my best loved student, which was Sasha. He was charismatic and interesting. He was original. He had some kind of appeal that attracted me as a human being. I also became acquainted with his wife, Anna — they had married and had two kids. I decided to make a film about Sasha, who at this time was a very famous journalist on the Outlook television program, and was in the midst of these events. And he said yes because he trusted me. Anna was young, she was beautiful, and they were very much in love. For approximately half a year, I was pretty much living in their apartment. I installed some lights when we first started shooting in their home. And I had an Arriflex camera, which was 16mm film. While he was away on assignments in Azerbaijian, Iran, and Minsk after the Chernobyl accident, Anna and I would talk the whole day in this little apartment — she was very worried about Sasha, and so was I — and we became very close friends.

Filmmaker: In A Bitter Taste of Freedom, we glimpse Sasha and Anna at home, apparently leading a happy life. Then things shifted between them. What happened, exactly?

Goldovskaya: Sasha began drinking; he was in love with himself too much. Anna was a very direct and sincere woman. She said to me, “He doesn’t have enough time to think about life; I feel I don’t fit into his world anymore.” I showed them A Taste of Freedom and said, “Guys, what do you think? Do you want this film shown in Russia or not?” Sasha had just been elected to the Parliament, so it wasn’t so good for his career. Russians aren’t used to this kind of sincerity. So it was not shown in Russia. But I continued to visit them, and I saw that Sasha was deteriorating more and more. That’s when Anna started working.

Filmmaker: What I found fascinating is that she had so much energy and vitality and passion for covering the war in Chechnya, yet she also maintained a consistently stable domestic life for her family.

Goldovskaya: When I first came to their home, she was a housewife, she had no time for anything else. She wanted to give her children everything — a good life, a career, and a good understanding of who they are, with high moral values. She wanted to dedicate her life to them while they needed her. When I saw her four or five years later, she was already working, and things were not well between her and Sasha. Then, in 2000 [after their divorce], I was completely blown away by the change in her. I knew she was a war correspondent and had read her articles, but I was astonished by the change.

Filmmaker: When did you decide to start filming those conversations with Anna? And did you have a design in mind for a film or was it just an impulse?

Goldovskaya: When I was shooting the demonstration against the Communist party that you see in the film, there were leaflets everywhere, put into our mailboxes with threats: “Don’t go to the march, it will be a bloodbath.” It took courage for each and every person to show up. My mother was crying and told me, “Don’t go, you know they’ll start killing people.” But it turned out to be the first victory of democracy. When I was shooting this demonstration, I was standing on the balcony of the fifth floor on Gorky Street and I was crying, I couldn’t stop. I felt that new times are coming. It was an amazing moment of unity. Standing there, I said to myself I need to have a camera of my own and start filming life and all these changes. Emotions will go away but memory has to be left. A month later I was in Germany and bought the first Super VHS camera and began shooting friends, acquaintances, people on the street — everything. I didn’t go anywhere without the camera.

Filmmaker: How often did you meet up with Anna after your film was completed?

Goldovskaya: I married an American in 1994 and began teaching at the UCLA film school. So summers and winters — every free moment — I took my camera and went to Russia. Anna was one of my favorite characters. So I’d call her and say, “How are you, when do we see each other?” Every time I came, I was [inseparable] from my camera. And everybody got used to it.

Filmmaker: It’s a very intimate and personal portrait you’ve created from this special relationship. But Anna was also a public figure who stirred controversy with her obvious sympathy for refugees and then Chechnya’s victims. Do you think she maintained her objectivity as a journalist, or even that she needed to?

Goldovskaya: She wanted to be objective. But she took it so close to heart. I’m sure she never exaggerated anything. Some people have thick skin, others like me have thin skin. She had none at all — it went right to her heart. That’s why, though she began as a journalist, by the end of her life she was a civil-rights activist. When she was [covering] some horrible event, she wanted also to help the people whom she was writing about. One of her Chechen friends told me how she once brought a boy who had lost both arms and was blind after an explosion. She brought him home to Moscow — her children were taking care of him — and then she sent him to [a host family] in the United States. Who would do that?

Filmmaker: One of her colleagues says that now that she’s gone, that’s pretty much the end of investigative journalism in Russia.

Goldovskaya: Yes. There are still a few who do this kind of work, but not to the extent she did. When she went to Chechnya she had a special long skirt so she could [blend in]. Chechens don’t wear eyeglasses and that made her unhappy because she couldn’t see without them! She put a scarf on her head to look like a Chechen woman. She spoke to people on her own [without fixers] and was arrested several times by the Russian authorities.

Filmmaker: She recounts some of these episodes in her memoir, A Russian Diary.

Goldovskaya: Yes. She was threatened all the time. She was captured by the KGB and sit in a cell for some time. She had to work like a spy. And she said to me, “This kills me, I’m working like a spy on my own soil.”

Filmmaker: Yet she was the person the authorities wanted to act as a mediator when the Chechen rebels held hostages at a Moscow theater in 2002.

Goldovskaya: That was at Nord-Ost, the music theater. The press secretary called her in Los Angeles and said “Come immediately, the Chechens want to talk only to you,” because they trusted her. And she came. But she was not allowed to conduct the negotiations. At one point, I wanted to go with her to Chechnya but she said “No, I cannot do it — you need a special accreditation.” Once, I asked one of my friends “Do you happen to have any photos of Anya?” And he said, “I never would film this hysterical woman!” There was so much hatred in this statement. There was a lot of controversy in the outcome of her work.

Filmmaker: Who do you think is responsible for Anna Politkovskaya’s death?

Goldovskaya: It’s very hard to say because many people hated her. Of course the authorities didn’t like her. Then there are certain Chechen leaders who she accused of being merciless. She was a strong enemy of such people. Many Russian soldiers and officers, too. She didn’t cater to anybody, and wrote what she felt. If you remember the civil-rights activist Svetlana, who’s in the film, she said, “Many people would like to get rid of her. Her voice was too strong and they were afraid of it.” I’m not sure we’ll ever learn the truth.

Filmmaker: In your own memoir, Woman with a Movie Camera, you mention the irony of how perestroika actually ended a certain freedom for documentary filmmakers, in the sense that with no more state funding they now have to fight for production funds. What’s the situation now?

Goldovskaya: It’s very difficult. When it was the Soviet Union, we were given money and it was not a problem. And we were very well paid. It was a pleasure because you never thought about where to get money for a film. Now I have made two films for $30,000. Documentaries are made for television. If they are positive in their attitude to the government, they will be funded. If there’s something that’s not along these lines, they may get a grant but they will have problems with distribution. That’s why I’m not at all sure A Bitter Taste of Freedom will ever be shown on television.

Filmmaker: Was it unusual for a woman to operate a camera back when you started?

Goldovskaya: Yes, but there were one or two. I was the first who was both a cinematographer and director. It is still a more patriarchal society. But here in the U.S., I have lots of students who are young women. They want to shoot and do it very well. It was difficult to make your way in this business back then. I was lucky.

Filmmaker: Having the confidence and the drive to know that’s what you wanted to do probably helped just as much as good fortune.

Goldovskaya: The drive came with the work. When I decided to go to the Moscow film institute, my father was very well known in the business — that’s why his name helped me — but my parents were against it. They said, “You won’t be able to make it. You will never have a family. It’s not for a woman.” The more they said don’t do it, the more I wanted to! That’s why my advice to parents is: Never give advice. I was completely taken by this profession. I communicated with people in little towns, in the provinces, in Moscow, in the mines, in the South Antarctic, the North Pole, everywhere. It was euphoric. I saw and learned so much; I became a different person. The more I did it, the more I fell in love with it. I think I was lazy when I was young, but then I became a workaholic.

Filmmaker: What have you learned that’s proven to be most valuable in the way you work?

Goldovskaya: The constant contact with people. It gives you a feeling of the world you live in, of what’s going in their minds, and how to reflect the reality we’re living in. I feel very connected to the world. When I look back at my films, which I show to my students, I see that each is a reproduction, metaphorically, of the period of Russian history in which it was made. I have the feeling that I didn’t live this life in vain.

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