Today I saw two extraordinarily different films, a European Documentary A Bitter Taste of Freedom, from the well known Russian film maker / director Marina Goldovskaya (a joint Swedish-USA-Russian production) and later on I saw an narrative film set in the Alaskan town of Barrow called On the Ice, an American film by the Director Andrew Okpeaha MacLean.
A Bitter Taste of Freedom is really two films, or one film that has gone in two directions. Marina Goldovskaya began this film in the 1990s with the intention of ‘explaining’ Perestroika to the Russians, in other words to give them A Taste of Freedom, which was the original title for this documentary. She chose as her character subject an old student of hers from her time as a professor at the Moscow School of Journalism, Sasha Politkovskaya who was at the time a television anchor man for a radical programme called Outlook. However, since he was often away, she also focussed on his wife Anna, who was also one of her pupils and with whom she developed a close bond of friendship, underpinned by enormous admiration.
The filming continued over a period of about ten years, much of it in the form of conversations at the kitchen table or in the dining room at meal times with the family, and during the film we hear Anna explaining her passion for journalism and the pursuit of truth, through witness. She is in fact, that rare thing, a Russian investigative journalist. She wrote as she saw: covering the Second Chechen War, corruption, the refugee crisis, police harassment and in writing about these things she made enemies, lots of them. Such that even four years after the event, a clear case of assassination, it is not clear who was primarily responsible for her death.
In fact four people are likely to be tried at some point soon, but as with so many things in this story – this is probably not the whole answer. This is where this film changed its direction, for on October 7th 2006, Anna Politkovskaya was gunned down in the entrance to her apartment on the way back from buying groceries at a local shop.
So as well as seeing again some of the incidents in which Anna was closely involved and reporting, we hear from her friends and colleagues as they absorb and mourn her death. This nearly immaculate film becomes a tribute to her courage and her commitment.
I urge you to see this film which surely will have UK distribution. Personally, I didn’t like the music which was too emotionally directional for my taste, but when challenged on this in the Q&A afterwards, Marina said that they had done the filming and editing with music and had asked the composer to come up with an integrated musical film score that reflected it.
On the Ice could not have been more different. Set in the northern Arctic circle in an isolated Inuit community, three young men on the threshold of life are involved in an accidental death. The two survivors are closely questioned: by the rescue team, the police and their friends – but one of them was off his head with crack cocaine and alcohol and cannot really remember exactly what happened; the other one, who knows, is too frightened of the consequences to unburden himself.
Superbly acted by an assembled cast of mostly non-professionals this is a disturbing picture of a rough and cruel existence, where alcohol and drugs blight the lives of nearly all the characters in this story. One young man, Aivaaq has an alcoholic mother and no father, who we later learn is a dead drunk. Qalli, the steady one, has a university career ahead of him. Traditional values, community and a hard life are being steadily eroded by drugs, hip-hop and alcohol.
The music is this film replicates, in a strange and sinister way, the groaning noise that ice and snow make when they are rubbing together, altogether very unnerving. The photography combines the stark white beauty of the hunting fields of the Arctic Circle with the drab messiness of the town.
I cannot predict whether this will make it to our screens, but if it does I recommend you make a note of the title and go to see it.