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Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Sunday Film Review: Banned in Russia



The Moscow Times reports:

Swiss director Eric Bergkraut doesn't expect his latest film, "Letter to Anna," to go down well in Russia, or even to make it into theaters. But in an interview after the premiere of the feature-length version at the Hot Docs International Film Festival in Toronto, he said he didn't want his film to be perceived as "anti-Russian."

"One can be very critical of Mr. Putin's politics without being anti-Russian at all," Bergkraut emphasized. "I am not sure if that is understood in Moscow today."

"Letter to Anna" is a documentary describing the life and death of the independent-minded Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was often treated with suspicion by the Russian authorities, and indeed by no small number of ordinary Russians.

Politkovskaya was best known for her critical writing on the wars in Chechnya, which appeared in the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, and in her books, "A Dirty War," and "A Small Corner of Hell."
She was shot to death in the elevator of her Moscow apartment building on October 7, 2006.

Bergkraut first met Politkovskaya in 2003, while he was working on his documentary, "Coca: The Dove From Chechnya," a film about a Chechen woman who had filmed human rights abuses in the republic.

Bergkraut asked Politkovskaya to appear in the film, and she agreed.

"My first impression of Anna was that she was very busy, very focused on her work, and that she was afraid of wasting her time. But once we started talking, we had very long talks, much longer than we had intended," Bergkraut said.

"What I liked was that she was always on the side of the weak person. I never had the feeling that it was about good Chechens and bad Russians. She was not naive at all. She just found the way the Russian government was dealing with the conflict not very intelligent."

Bergkraut assembled "Letter to Anna" from footage of Politkovskaya left over from "Coca," as well as footage which he shot in Russia after her death.

The film includes interviews with Politkovskaya's son Ilya, her daughter Vera, her ex-husband, Alexander Politkovsky, and makes clear that Politkovskaya's family feared for her life.

"Her family wanted to stop her. The only person who did not want to stop her was her daughter, Vera, who had a deep understanding for what her mother did. All the others -- and it's very understandable -- tried to stop her, but it was not possible."

The idea of living in exile was impossible for her, he said. "She did not want to leave the country. That would have been in total contradiction to who she was and how she lived."

Expatriate Russian billionaire and Kremlin critic Boris Berezovsky is among the Kremlin opponents Bergkraut interviews in the film, which is one reason he expects to have difficulties getting it screened in Russia.

"The film could do without Berezovsky, but why should it? Why is it impossible for Russians to see Berezovsky?" Bergkraut asked.

"He is a kind of Mephisto in the film. He is not the good guy. He has to be in the film because, [Russian Prosecutor General] Yury Chaika said at a press conference that [Politkovskaya's] murder could only have come from abroad, from oligarchs. It is quite clear that he was pointing at Berezovsky," he said.

Another possible obstacle to the film's presentation in Russia might be Politkovskaya's characterization of the war in Chechnya as "genocidal."

"She gives a very good argument," says Bergkraut. "Do you know how many people have been killed in Chechnya? We do not know the figures. Maybe only 80,000. Maybe 150,000. Maybe 300,000. It's really a tragedy. Chechens are a very small community," he said.

"But every single Russian soldier and his family is a tragedy too, for me. It's not necessarily that I share [her] judgment, but I wanted to show it," he added.

"Letter to Anna" also includes appearances by Garry Kasparov, Novaya Gazeta editor Dmitry Muratov, and other colleagues and acquaintances of Politkovskaya.

Bergkraut regrets that he was not able to represent "official Russia" more thoroughly in his film.

"I tried very hard to get an interview with Yury Chaika, but it was not possible. I am trying hard to understand [his position]. I would have loved to have more official Russian voices," he said.

Bergkraut also laments that no one from "official Russia" has attended any of his international screenings.

"At all the screenings of my film, I was expecting that some day someone from the Russian embassy would come, and we would have a discussion. Nobody ever came. It's a pity. My last film has been shown in about 30 countries, but not in Russia. Isn't that strange?"

After winning the International Human Rights Film Award for "Coca" in Berlin last year, Bergkraut was approached by several film stars who expressed interest in collaborating with him. As a result, Susan Sarandon, Catherine Deneuve, and Iris Berben provided the narrations for "Letter to Anna" in its English, French, and German versions, respectively.

Bergkraut's film was also honored by Vaclav Havel when it screened at the One World International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival in Prague earlier this year.

"Festivals and television stations are now approaching me because they want to show "Letter to Anna," but no one has come to me from Russia," Bergkraut said.

"A discussion [about Politkovskaya] -- which may be controversial -- would be interesting and somehow natural. The best thing would be if a Russian television channel bought "Letter to Anna. Maybe one day. Things can change."

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