Eric Bergkraut on Letter To Anna

The Swiss director talks about his daring documentary.

by Val Kermode

Swiss director Eric Bergkraut, who made Coca: The Dove From Chechnya, has created this very personal testament to Anna Politkovskaya, the brave journalist and human rights activist who was murdered in 2006: Letter To Anna.

Bergkraut says he used Anna in his previous film because he wanted a Russian voice. Speaking to us at the Sheffield Doc/Fest, he said, “I believe in pluralism. In film I ask questions, more than give answers.”

The director interviewed Anna on four occasions, three in Russia and one in Switzerland. He commented on how much Anna opened up when in Switzerland, feeling free to express her opinions without fear. In fact Anna always knew that her reporting on the situation in Chechnya and her refusal to be silenced was putting her life in danger, and she even wrote about this shortly before her death.

When Eric heard the news that she had been shot, like so many others he wanted to pay tribute to an exceptional woman he had come to know as a friend. Realising that he still had so much footage of Anna from the making of Coca, he decided to use it as the basis for this new film.

He tells us using reconstruction how Anna was followed in her last days and how she was shot on entering the apartment block where she had only just come to live, the assailant even captured on camera as he was leaving. Susan Sarandon provides the voiceover for this English version. Catherine Deneuve voiced the French version, and is seen with others leaving flowers at a memorial for Anna.

Then we see something of how Anna lived, through interviews with her editor at the newspaper Novaya Gazety, her colleagues, family and Anna herself. We learn that Anna could be tough to work with, yet always kind to those in need of help. Her editor jokes about this, saying that he used to tell Anna he wished he was one of her poor injured victims, then she might be nicer to him.

Anna’s sister, Elena, who was also present at Doc/Fest, appears in the film talking about Anna as a child, how she always had a strong sense of justice and belief in truth. Eric was asked “Did making this film put you in danger?” He smiled, “Making any film about human rights puts you in danger.” He was also asked about the risks taken by those he interviewed for the film. He talked about how the dangers are well known to those working in Russia, how all journalists know that there is a line not to be crossed. Elena, herself a journalist, confirmed this.

Asked about access, Eric said that he would have loved an interview with Putin, but had to use news footage, though he said of one interview with a minister, “I loved editing this, because you see it in two ways.”

We were fortunate to have in the festival audience some people with first hand knowledge of Russia, and several thanked Eric warmly for making the film. Asked if it would be shown in Russia, he said, “I am very pleased to be showing it in England”. But he hopes to use a website version in Russia.

Bergkraut uses a lot of close- ups of Anna in the film, and he explained that he felt unable to use this material in Coca because in that film he didn’t want to put the focus so firmly on Anna. What was actually a necessity, having limited footage of his subject, he has made into a virtue. This is a film which feels pared down to the essentials, an intimate portrait lovingly made.

For many, the film will leave a lot of questions unanswered. But perhaps this is appropriate for a life cut short. And as Eric said, he prefers questions to answers.

Someone asked Eric why he chose for his final shot an image of Anna smiling. He said, “For me Anna is still alive.”

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