[Letter to Anna premieres today at the Film Society of Lincoln Center as part of the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival 2008. Click here for screening information.]
In Letter to Anna, Swiss director Eric Bergkraut juxtaposes interviews he shot with the crusading Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya—before her still unsolved murder in the lobby of her apartment building on Vladimir Putin's 54th birthday in October 2006—with interviews with family and colleagues to create a personal video diary of a woman fueled by an obsession with justice, more a tribute than a "letter" or film. Though dry and straightforward, even clunky in spots (especially when narrated in the English language version by Susan Sarandon, standing in for the filmmakers), the doc is a low-key, respectful summation of a life that resembled a tabloid-ready espionage thriller.
From the Chechen "genocide" caught on VHS tapes by a guilt-ridden Russian soldier and clandestinely delivered to Anna, to the hostage negotiations she undertook at the behest of the Chechens who stormed a Moscow theater (the thugs to be gassed along with their hostages by the Russian police, in an incident likely instigated by a double agent), to her poisoning on a plane by an unknown substance slipped into her tea (during the Beslan crisis), to her imprisonment in a pit in Chechnya, it's a wonder she lived as long as she did (Anna herself says as much, calling it a "miracle") before being gunned down at the age of 48.
Her grown daughter and son, Vera and Ilya, saw their mother less as a journalist than as a soldier willing to die in patriotic duty. (Bergkraut—who met Anna while filming his doc "Coca the Dove From Chechnya," about the Chechen women who record the Russian army's human rights abuses—notes that she only made major purchases in the name of her children.) Anna even explains that the people she reports on are in life-threatening situations, just like her. And after her murder, those situations became ever more dire. The ludicrous Russian spin—that individuals outside of Russia killed her to discredit Putin!—gives way to the still-radiating corpse of dissident writer Alexander Litvinenko, then to chess champ and Kremlin nemesis Garry Kasparov speaking out for both Litvinenko and Politkovskaya, saying Russia asks nothing of the west except to "not interfere by turning a blind eye to Putin."
This elegant, Princess Di-like journalist, with her unwavering moral compass and passion for righting the wrongs of the oppressed, was part of a bigger picture. Even today, with the war in Chechnya officially over, Putin's handpicked Chechen president—who Anna, in her last article, which she never lived to see published, accused of "disappearing" people—could theoretically become president for life, since he changed the constitution upon taking office. "You see, it's impossible to live on top of a volcano," Anna's ex-husband offers by way of explaining their split. Or on the tip of an iceberg, for above all Letter to Anna is a call to others to complete the investigation into her death and to continue her crucial life's work. (I can see Bergkraut's portrait of a lady being incorporated into a grander film—hopefully before Angelina Jolie picks up the rights!)
Brooklyn-based writer Lauren Wissot is the publisher of the blog Beyond the Green Door, the author of the memoir Under My Master's Wings, and a contributor to The Reeler.