Dirs. Paolo Serbandini and Giovanna Massimetti, Italy, 2008, 89 minutes.
The murder of the controversial journalist Anna Politkovskaya in the lobby of her apartment building in Moscow in October 2006 made her a cause celèbre. This well-meaning tribute to the courageous journalist - and the 210 who proceeded her - is unlikely to go much farther than the television markets of Europe and the US, however, with the Russian market evidently not an option for sales.
This documentary moves slowly and obliquely into Politkovskaya’s career as a rabble-rousing investigator of Russian politics after perestroika. Her husband, Alexander Politkovsky, Russia’s star TV journalist in the late 1980’s, leads us through her biography, which the film presents as a series of confrontations with the powerful. Politkovskaya’s entry into fulltime journalism is viewed as an act to move beyond her husband’s shadow.
As Serbandini and Massimetti see it, Politkovskaya’s professional life became inseparable from the crises of her time and place- militarisation, abuses of power, the Chechen War, authoritarian rule in the Kremlin, and the corrupt privatisation of state enterprises.
Politkovskaya was most closely associated with Chechnya. She wrote some 500 articles on the conflict, and was abducted by Russian paratroopers and threatened with rape and death. In 2004, she tried in vain to mediate between Russian military and gunmen who seized the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow during a performance. The film shows the Russian response to that action, a gas attack which killed 129 hostages.
Later that year, when Chechen commandos seized a school in the town of Beslan, Politkovskaya was poisoned and almost died while flying there to help negotiate. The documentary suggests that her death was a just a matter of time.
The documentary matches up an eye-witness interview with grim archival footage of each cataclysmic event which Politkovskya covered. Random interviews with passersby on the street when the film was being shot indicate some familiarity with her case, but not much sympathy for her.
The filmmakers employ the confusing and peculiar narrative device of a voice-over speaking lines written by Anna, as the camera looks into a room where a female figure stands and light can be seen at the opposite end.
Yet there is clarity to the film’s assessment of the regime that Politkovskaya was investigating and reporting on. Russia was using force, punishing critics and stealing resources with impunity, it says, and Politkovskaya was determined to report what she saw, making her an enemy.
Archival footage in 211: Anna does not form the most frightening picture of Russia today, but reinforces what is already known from other documentaries. Journalists who seek to join the ranks of courageous reporters like Anna Politkovskaya should expect to pay a price, like the more than 211 who have died so far.
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