Judy, BBC 4, BBC iPlayer, written by Tom Edge and Peter Quilter, directed by Rupert Goold.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m0012y9d/judy

The use of the singular name implies the universal. A rose by any other name is still a rose. Judy Garland arrives in swinging London for a number of sell-out performances in The Talk of the Town in the winter of 1968. Six months later she was dead at the age of 47.

Renee Zellweger is Judy, with a long chin, white butterfly masquerade mask of a face with bright red lips. Get the spiky black hair, but it’s the voice that counts. I’m no great fan of music, but The Wizard of Oz was on every Christmas of childhood. Judy inhabits our past. Her arrival in London was met with the nostalgic acclaim of virtual and digitally enhanced ABBA performing their medley of greatest hits. They didn’t put a foot wrong, but Judy was a drunken mess, which was part of the attraction. I winced as fans flung food at her.  

She joked she slept around five hours in her whole childhood. Uppers and downers, and a chaperone to make sure she didn’t eat. Drilled for eighteen hours a day. She was an asset when working. A liability to be watched over when not.  When a doctor in London examiners her and gives her another ‘vitamin’ injection, he proclaims her underweight, her response that he was flirting with her.

Inevitably, a side story of her tour involves a duo of male admirers who are homosexual. Judy gets married to a younger admirer, but the wedding cake lasts longer than the groom. She tells a talk-show host that she’s only Judy for an hour a night, when she’s performing. The other time, like everybody else, she’s a working mother of two children whom she loves and is poor old put-upon Lorna Luft (Bella Ramsey).

In a flashback, Judy/ Lorna Luft makes Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery) come out of his office and give the soon to be sixteen-year-old Judy a telling off. He puts his hand on her adolescent breast. He owns her is the message, which she would take heed to learn again and again.  

The rise and fall of Judy is the rise and fall of Renee Zellweger. I could take or leave the film, but Zellweger’s performance is one worth remembering. I don’t know if she won any awards for it (the film was made for BBC in 2019), but if not, she should have. Wow.    

Storyville, BBC 4, BBC iPlayer, Tango with Putin, Directed, written and produced by Vera Krichevskaya 

Storyville, BBC 4, BBC iPlayer, Tango with Putin, Directed, written and produced by Vera Krichevskaya 

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m00156cw/storyville-tango-with-putin?page=1

Memory is always being subverted. Tango with Putin begins with the Muscovite fairy-tale princess and her pink car looking for a prince. Natasha and Sasha…and they lived happily ever after in their castle.

James Cameron (reporting on the North Vietnamese):

‘They whispered that I was their dupe, but what they really meant was I was not their dupe.’  

The princess wants a toy to play with. And Sasha buys her a television station.

Ecclesiastes: ‘Who gathers knowledge, gathers pain’.

Starvation as a weapon of war. Stalinist policies kill between four and ten million in the Ukraine. War is called peace and stabilisation.

Ashkhabad, a crossroad that became a town when a Russian fort was built in 1881 to help break the Turkmen’s resistance to annexation, disappears in fifteen seconds in 1948. The Turks constitute the largest language group in the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.  An earthquake wipes out the city. Only the statue of Lenin remained.

Advisors from The Chicago School came to advise the Communist government how to initiate change in post-Gorbachev Russia. Shares. Every Russian citizen should have shares in the former dead-hand of the Russian economy and state enterprises. ‘You pretend to pay us and we’ll pretend to work’ is the Russian way of life. Job done in the free-market Russian economy. With their new-found shared wealth, former Soviets invested in new businesses.  They all lived happily ever after.

Maps of the world. American National Geographic Society cut the USSR in half place it in the fold where no child could find it. Moscow’s Institute of Geography prints a different map. Putin’s map shows Russia in a central spot. Former Soviet States in the middle. The United States is an appendage, cut in half and down to size.

Russia has a shrinking and ageing population. From 150 million 1914 to around 140 million. Natural wastage. Around 20 million, a generation lost in The Great Patriotic War. Around 24 million ethnic Russian’s live outside the former Soviet System, but not all is lost. It maintains the criterion of blood purity. Russia for Russians. Muscovites queued for hours to enter Lenin’s mausoleum. Another queue formed to get hamburgers, ketchup, fries and Coke. They came together. Closing McDonalds in Moscow helps maintain imperial isolation. Paradoxically, the second element is land. But the more land the former Soviet States claim, the greater the dilatation of Russian ethic purity. Ukraine provides an ideal fix. Population 44 million. The former breadbasket of Russia (and Germany) is ethnically pure. Many of the battles fought in the Great Patriotic War were fought in and around Ukraine. Many Russian troops that died and continued to die in wars such as Afghanistan were also Ukrainian.  You will see old Ukrainian comrades in news reports disparaging Putin’s claims that the Ukrainian people are Neo-Nazis or terrorists.

Stalin’s road to heaven. An ounce of gold is worth an ounce of bread. Auschwitz, Treblinka, Hiroshima, (Kolyma) Magadan. 11th November 1931, the Central Committee of the Communist Party create a trust to mine for gold, silver and other metals in Siberia. 160 gulags. Three million slaves don’t make it home. Permafrost maintains the expression on their faces when they died.

Russian’s console themselves, ‘Don’t despair, it was worse in Kolyma’.

There are no heroes in the camps, only survivors. Slave labour creates the long corridors underneath the Kremlin, Moscow Underground and Ukrainian Underground. Deep enough to shelter from bomb blasts, but not intrigues. The Georgian Stalin tried to destroy the old Moscow, but succeeded in only creating the new Moscow on the bones of the old.

Perestroika stretches only as far as the Kremlin walls: six comrades protest in Red Square about the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1968. No one asks a victim of the gulags were they have been for five, ten, twenty or twenty-five years. To ask questions is to leave yourself open to answers. Spies and informers are part of the state apparatus. Only those in power ask questions. The guilty are punished. The innocent fare worse for they have committed no crime. Truth is relative. Hunger ever-present.  Minsk to Pinsk.  Identification of comrade citizens is no longer easy. Mass deportations, famine, colonisation.  Some regard themselves as Georgian, but not Russian. Chechen, but not Russian. Ingush, but not Russian. Uzbek, but not Russian. East German, but German. Ukrainian but not Russian.  

The bounty system. The NKVD would inform locals when a prisoner had escaped from the camps. Bring a prisoner’s hand to match their fingerprints. Their reward was a sack of flour. Political prisoners were gullible. He would be taken along with a group of escaping prisoners and eaten. One less political. They lived happily ever after.

T.D. Allman: ‘Genuinely objective journalism not only gets the facts right, it gets the meanings of events right. It is compelling not only today, but stands the test of time. It is validated not only by ‘reliable sources’ but the unfolding of history.’      

Notes.

Jim Morrison: ‘Whoever controls the media controls the mind.’

By the end of Vladimir Putin’s second term in 2008, all Russian television was under state control.

Before this story begun, I spent 15 years working on independent television. News and political talkshows were my main passions. After all independent television had been destroyed in my country, I found myself at this house, where I spent many months in discussion of a new enterprise.

Putin 2009. [Cheering] The elections for the President of Russia are over. And our candidate, Dmitry Medvedev, is clearly in the lead.

Back in 2008, Russia still looked like a land of business opportunity.  For Natasha Sindeeva, the owner of that white mansion and this pink car, every road was another adventure.  And every adventure was her excuse for another party.

The top executive of a Moscow music radio station, Natasha was the dancing queen of the city. 

In Putin’s Russia, former music radio producer Natasha Sindeeva dreams of becoming famous and decides to build her own TV station to focus on pop culture.

‘Without any false modesty, I’m going to sing and dance. So be prepared to be sick of me on stage, today. Because today is all about me Natasha Sindeeva.’

Natasha knew how to make things up. She even dreamed up a husband, to be precise—a prince. I remember this moment. I was falling asleep, thinking: ‘I’ve been so good. I deserve a prince. To love me and cherish me. To bring flowers and gifts. A handsome, tall, smart guy with character. I literally painted Sasha’s portrait in my mind.

Their wedding was a literal palace. The Russian Versailles. Natasha spun around the fountains with the world-famous Russian ballet behind her.

And there was a new president too: Dmitry Medvedev. Just like Natasha he saw the world through rose or rather pink coloured glasses, but his partner was more czar than prince.

Alexander Sasha Vinokurov (Natasha’s husband and investor)

Do you remember when he was asked about the most important thing in life?

Suddenly, the Russian President said ‘Love’.   If we had a president that talked about love being the most important thing Russia would be a perfect country. But he enjoyed it. Here’s my iPhone, here’s my iPad. Here I am meeting with American entrepreneurs. He enjoyed being the good guy.

Dmitry Medvedev:’ The principle of freedom is better than non-freedom. These words are a distillation of human experience.’

It seems naïve now, but when I watched that clip I wanted to cry. Like: ‘Look Americans, this is what our President is like’.

There was no room for politics in my life. We didn’t vote. We just didn’t.

The economy was booming, as if on steroids. It seemed that anything was possible. It was going to keep growing. 

Sasha made money banking, during Russia’s boom years and could finance a crazy idea. So Natasha had one. To build her very own tv empire. And that’s where I came in.

Vera Krichevskaya (tv producer)

We started at the most expensive real estate uptown (Moscow). Natasha loved the view.

I remember having talks with Natasha. ‘Why isn’t there tv for normal people, why don’t we make it?’ That’s how it started. It was as simple as that.

What’s the date today? Ah,  the 30th. It’s July 30th. The 31st. 2008 and our television station is on its way to being built.

Here it was. The American Dream. The definition of a start-up. ‘Where’s your business plan?’ We’ll finish our business plan later. That’s the reality we lived at the time.

Natasha was a big dreamer. She already had a name and colour palette for her tv station.

DOZHD: Optimistic Channel.

Big, obnoxious.

That was the first time fate intervened.

Radio broadcast: What’s happening on Wall Street… traders say…

Sasha’s bank had not survived the recession of 2008. And from uptown we came down to earth and downtown.

Downtown Moscow. The cheapest building… in ‘Red October’. An old chocolate factory named after the revolution of 1917. Our floor smelled of caramel and rats.

I love that. Those incredible pillars and windows. So the sofas could go here. We thought so too… We’re going to have a TV station. We’re going to do this.

‘All the elements are based on truth, this real life.’

So everything and everybody must be themselves as much as possible. Life must be as authentic as possible.

Anna ‘Forsh’ Forshtreter.  Executive Director.

We came to the office to meet Natasha. And then at one point, this girl walks in and gives Natasha this bundle. Natasha takes this new baby and opens her shirt. And without missing a beat, Natasha starts breastfeeding her. I understood immediately these were great people. I really liked them.

Anna Anya Mongayt. (Journalist)

That was the first time I saw Natasha in person. She made a great impression on me because she was only wearing purple. Purple knee-high boots. Purple leggings. And a purple sweater. And she was wearing this ring with a huge stone.

Right away she made a big impression on me.

They switched on all the lights at once above our main news desk. From afar it looked like an operation table that was incredibly bright. There are people all around the table. The cameras are rolling. The screens are on. Vera  is yelling out orders from the control room. So it looks like we’re going to have a tv station after all.

In English, ‘Dozhd’ translates as rain, TV rain.

Only God knows why Natasha picked that name. In truth, the most accurate name for this enterprise… would have been The Adventure Channel.

April 2010 [opens] Dozhd TV goes on air.

The first broadcast looked hideous. Totally DIY.

I was afraid of running into my old colleagues from the real tv stations.

We were the industry’s biggest joke. But Natasha loved it. The parties I hated were great from the start.

Alexander Sasha Vinokurov (Natasha’s husband and investor)

When the project started, Natasha knew nothing about tv news. How it works. What it’s for. And so on… her initial concept was very different. She wanted to have lots of nice conversations. Things like that.

Statement: Regardless of sexual orientation. Regardless of age. Regardless of health conditions. Of hair and eye colour. Of faith and political views. We are always yours.

Renat Davletgildeev Deputy Editor-in-Chief.

When I came to Dozhd, I instantly felt not to lie to myself. To be honest with myself. Because at that point I was still accepting myself as gay. 

Mikhail ‘Misha’ Zygar Editor in Chief.

I had ten years’ experience reporting from war zones. I wanted…I don’t know, I wanted an adventure.

Apparent suicide bombing in the hall of the Domodedovo Airport. On TV, people are outraged the CNN and Twitter already has images. Apparently 70 dead. While Russian channels, federal channels have nothing.

Suddenly we found ourself in a different reality to other tv stations. Sometimes I felt that we lived in two disparate countries. The news we talked about were ignored by all State controlled media as if it didn’t happen.

In the last year of President Medvedev’s term we launched a weekly sketch show in which, with the help of the classics of Russian poetry, we staged scenes between the President and his  Prime Minister Putin.

And True Glory came. Our audience doubled every week. In April, 2011, we lauched a new episode of our viral show in which our father of the nation, Putin, decides not to give his heir Medvedev a second term.   

…But the episode never went live.

Natasha:

Because I think there are boundaries of constructive criticism. And occasionally drift towards personal criticism. That crossed the line. So I found it impossible to broadcast.

Vera Krichevskaya (tv producer)

Everybody on social media shamed us for selling out. Federal media popped champagne. Opposition activists turned of Dozhd. I saw it as self-censorship. Then, in two weeks, I learned that President Medvedev wanted to visit out humble station.  At that point, I felt we had run out of independence. Natasha was busy preparing for the visit. But, for me, it was the end of our fairytale. Then I quit.

Mikhail ‘Misha’ Zygar Editor in Chief.

When the broadcast finished [after Medvedev’s visit] we all had the feeling of having done well. And I remember for the rest of that week, I would come to work and see people crying at their desks. Our audience thought this was all part of some big pact. Natasha kills our satire show in order to host Medvedev as a guest.  Vera quit in protest. And now we’re all playing Judas…For Natasha, it wasn’t a pact.

Q to Natasha. What did you say to Medvedev?

A You’re a really cool dude. You should run for re-election.

CONGRESS

Medvedev : ‘I think it’s right that Congress should support the candidacy of our party leader, Vladimir Putin for the post of president of our country. 

Renat Davletgildeev Deputy Editor-in-Chief.

Now, I’m going to scare you a bit. The thaw is over Medvedev represented political moderation. Now the screws will be tightened.

We’re living inside an experiment. An experiment in stopping time. Is it possible to survive 12 more years without change?

Alexander Sasha Vinokurov (Natasha’s husband and investor)

So I just hoped. Little by little, things would improve. That hope turned out to be completely naïve. It’s a shame, my hopes. All my hopes were wasted on this.    

4 December 2011.

Legislative Elections 

Mikhail ‘Misha’ Zygar Editor in Chief.

The parliamentary elections are coming up. There are no battles. And the only way out I could think of was to get credentials [Parliamentary] for all our editorial staff. I got them all accredited as members of the electoral commissions at various polling stations.

Renat Davletgildeev Deputy Editor-in-Chief.

‘Hi Misha, I’ve only got a minute, we’ve opened the first electoral ballot box. There are stacks of 9-10 votes for United Russia that are for sure cast together. We’ve just found 3 huge stacks, 20 ballots wrapped in other’s ballots. Wonderful.   There’s no way to drop those in together by accident.

Alexander Sasha Vinokurov (Natasha’s husband and investor)

When I went to that protest [against Putin] I expected to see some weird people, to feel a little awkward or even scared. But many of the people I found there were my friends. They’d say, ‘Hi, so, you’re here as well. Look—so and so is here too’.

Vera Krichevskaya (tv producer)

Ironically, Sasha and I ended up in the same crowd. I was shooting my first documentary at the protest. Sasha was led there by voter fraud.

Renat Davletgildeev Deputy Editor-in-Chief.

The last thing we heard was one of our Dozhd reporter, Ilya Vasyunin was arrested.  We’re still trying to reach him now. We can see him in the police van. We should reach him soon.

Anna Anya Mongayt. (Journalist)

You said it was normal to be running from a police van.

Natasha

At first, I thought it would be a cultural, intellectual, lifestyle channel. But when I began to learn more, when I found myself on this wave of information, I realised just how much injustice was around us, which I hadn’t seen before. I honestly didn’t see it. Didn’t know it existed. I couldn’t keep not having an opinion about it.  

Cable audience grows exponentially (over 8 million).

When the protests started, Mr Gromov, an official from Putin’s administration called me for the first time.  He was screaming at me, ‘What do you think you are doing? How dare you! You’re spreading US State Department lies.

I remember I told him, ‘You know, I don’t work for you. I’m not part of the state media. We work in the way we think is right.’ 

Then he said, ‘We’ll ruin you.’ Something like that. It was a very nasty conversation.

6th May 2012.

Boris Nemtsov, opposition politician.

Today, Putin proved that he was elected illegally. The sheer number of special forces and military. This hasn’t happened in the centre of Moscow since 1993.

[crowd chanting: New elections]

Timur Olvesky, war correspondent.

My first live broadcast was at the elections on May 6th with everything that happened there.

‘It looks like a stampede. Nobody is planning to leave. They are breaking through police cordons. Unfortunately, I can’t see what’s happening.

[Pulled down from his platform by riot police]

Polina Koslovskya  Digital Director. 

It looks like Boris Nemtsov is getting arrested too. The stream is unavailable. No one expected us to be attacked like that. At the time, it was the job from hell. Because I was negotiating with different platforms. So that people could watch our broadcasts. On other websites if they got hit. So during life broadcasts most of the work we had to do was sending people to the right website on time. The cyber-attacks always came. We were sure they would come and we couldn’t avoid them.

Vera Krichevskaya (tv producer)

I clearly remember May 6th, Putins third inauguration. That was the day I switched on Dozsd again. 

Our online broadcast has partially stopped. I’ll remind you that today we have been cyber-attacked. The station I’d left just didn’t tell you what’s really happening around you, it also makes you feel less alone.

Q Natasha what are you afraid of?

A I’m afraid that after all the effort and emotions invested into this, something out of control it gets closed down, dies, or gets taken away. I don’t know. It’s not that I’m afraid of it. I just don’t want it to happen. Because I’ve put a lot of personal feelings into this. There’s a lot of my heart in this.

3rd Inauguration: Stately event.

Cf

Protest and chants, ‘Russia will be free.’

11th June 2013.

The law criminalising ‘gay propaganda’ passes with just one abstention.

The lives of many Russians will change. The problem with these homosexual propaganda laws is that for the first time in Russian history they are legally introducing the idea of the second-class citizen.

This law touched Dozhd more than other organisations. The newly inscribed second-class citizens made up more than half the team. When the bill was passed, it hurt us all.

Renat Davletgildeev Deputy Editor-in-Chief.

When the Afisha issue came with my interview came out, I was very afraid. Back then, I think, I was the first person with some level of recognition. To publicly come out as gay. And among journalists I was probably the first. Really, I should have approved the interview with Natasha Sideeva or Misha Zygar. I was, after all, a face on the station. The station had stuck my face onto buses as part of a promo campaign. Natasha took me into her office. Sasha, her husband, was there.  They hugged me, poured me a glass of wine. Sasha brought out a copy of the magazine he had found and asked for my autograph. I signed it. Then they told me I did the right thing. And I burst into tears. 

Natasha.

If nothing bad happens with advertising budget, maybe this year we’ll break even.

 Sasha, her husband

By the summer of 2013, we had essentially reached out goal. The station was popular. Many advertisers were eager to work with us.

Anna Anya Mongayt. (Journalist)

We were the voice of a new era.   People admired us. We felt like the media of the future.

Mikhail ‘Misha’ Zygar Editor in Chief.

In  interviews with prospective employees would say, ‘what we are offering is not a job. We’re offering you a dream. ‘

Behind me is the ‘Sosny’ Holiday Homes Cooperative. The gates of which just closed on our camera crew. Holiday homes owned by Vyacheslav Volodin, Putin’s First Deputy.  Chief of Staff, Sergey Prihodka, Head of the Government Apparatus. And prominent United Russian Party members.

Aleksei Navalny (Opposition Leader)

We’re demanding that all of these people explain where they got their money for such luxurious lifestyles. Where did they get that money?    

The level of luxuries they have is not at all compatible with their actual incomes.

KYIV [loud explosion]

Meanwhile, at the independence square, protests continue. They are targeting the Ukrainian government, which refused to sign the deal with the European Union.

[Ukrainian protester] Please tell Russians that we are not against them. We are not against you. Not against Russians. We love them. We just don’t love Putin. That’s all.   

Timur Olvesky, war correspondent.

I realised we were witnessing an event that was not only historical but one that was also determining our future. And I begged Misha to send me there.

From Kviv.

We have a breaking story. Both sides are firing live rounds. Some have been detained. It’s an absolute shitstorm over here. It’s a real war.

19th June 2014 was the first fight on Kyiv’s streets. At that point, everything split into Russian reporters on federal TV who’d talk about fascists burning down the SWAT teams, and Dozhd which covered it from a different angle.    

6 Days later (25th June)

Natasha:

Good afternoon,  It’s 8.37pm, you’re watching  amateurs broadcasting live.

Mikhail ‘Misha’ Zygar Editor in Chief.

On the day, the show’s theme was the anniversary of the Leningrad siege ending. They mentioned this quote by a great Russian general, Victor Astafyev

‘Maybe Leningrad should have been given to the Nazis, so that thousands of lives could have been saved.’

[cf Moscow given to Napoleon]

Natasha:

Should Leningrad been given to the Nazis to avoid hundreds of thousands of deaths?  Should it?

[commentator,  people can answer this?]

Yes, I understand there’s already a debate on twitter.

Mikhail ‘Misha’ Zygar Editor in Chief.

An avalanche falls.

[announcement on air]

About an hour ago, Dozhd tv was dropped from the NTZ and cable package. Dozhd was replaced onscreen by darkness. 

Alexander Sasha Vinokurov (Natasha’s husband and investor)

Nobody thought they would use it as a pretext to shut us down.

[screenshot of other stations] this question was morally and ethically beyond the pale for other people. The station crossed the line of what is acceptable.

Renat Davletgildeev Deputy Editor-in-Chief

The next day, on Tuesday, I think the State Parliament releases a statement chastising Dozhd tv. And on Wednesday, the expulsions begun.

‘Hello, my name is Anna Mongayt. Today I’m hosting the show ‘Online’. Our plan was to devote this hour to the life to Sochi in the lead up to the Olympics. But the situation has changed. Today, for the first time, the show will be devoted only to ourselves.’

It was interactive tv, you’d talk only to people that called in.

‘Can you hear me?’

When I started the show, all the providers were carrying us. But by the time I finished the show, everybody had dropped us.

[cable audience around 8 million drops exponentially to around 60 000 listeners]

A short break while we tell you who else has switched off Dozhd. 

Vera Krichevskaya (tv producer)

That night for the first time since I left, I called Natasha. Sasha picked up the phone. They were hosting a late-night meeting with the newsroom at home. Natasha was smoking in silence. In one day they had lost most of their 80% of their audience and most of their advertisers.  Right away, we began again. We started to brainstorm new plans. It was like we had never split up.

Renat Davletgildeev interview on Dozhd with Natasha.

What is going on? What is happening now?

They were looking for some excuse, and now, it seem, we have given them one. In confidential conversations, meaning off the record, for all these providers told us today that they were ordered to find any excuse—technical, ideological, commercial, legal—to terminate these contracts with us. And  everyone who switched us off, confirmed it, just not as a public statement.

[cut to Putin announcement]

‘Dozhd is an interesting station. With a good young team. But, as you said yourself, one that’s made some mistakes. To put it bluntly, not simple mistakes, but an offence to many of our citizens. But you need to own up to it, which you’ve done, and figure out how to proceed.’

Renat Davletgildeev

‘Today we’re holding a press conference for Dozhd TV’s CEO Natalia Sindeeva. And Dozh TV’s investor  Aleksandr Sasha Vinokurov.’

Anna Mongayt

I could tell how difficult it was for Natasha. She was a mess. She looked as pale as a ghost. You could see it was hard for her because it was all about to collapse.  All of Sasha’s fortune had gone into it. You could see how hard it was on their relationship. She was completely lost. She’d come to work grief-stricken. Looking like a widow.

Q ‘Arkady Orstrovsky, The Economist Magazine: ‘Will you appeal to Vladimir Putin without whose approval this expulsion likely wouldn’t have happened?

A Natasha: I think in that situation I would appeal to Putin, because I will fight to the end for this station, for this business, for this baby, for the right to work in an independent media.

I remember being at their house. Sasha always grilled steaks. Natasha always danced around the pool. We drank champagne with strawberries and imagined our TV future. I recited chapters of the Russian Constitution on citizens’ freedoms and quoted Harvey Milk on the need to fight for your rights. Natasha kept saying: ‘We won’t lose anything.’ We were so fucking stupid.

Sasha.

An opportunity came to sell the house. Without a second thought we invested the money into the station. We sold several properties. 

Natasha.

What happened, yes, consequentially led to all doors closing for Sasha. He’s become toxic because he is owner of Dozhd tv.

Sasha

There came a point when we had almost no money left for ourselves.   When we trimmed our expenses down, life became more fun.

Natasha.

For Sasha, the bad consequences of the station are elsewhere.  For Sasha…he lost me.

[report]

Mr Putin, Anton Zhelnov,  Dozhd TV, the key tv players cable and satellite providers are saying there is no command, the situation’s getting worse.

Putin: Maybe they’re fooling you. You think I give commands to cable people and all your advertisers?

Q Well, they’re saying abstractly. There’s no command, so may I ask, who this command has come from?

Putin: I don’t know. I don’t give such commands. I didn’t tell the cable providers to stop working with you and I don’t think I have the right to tell them to start working with you.

Q You work with them you yourself?

[cut to Natasha]

As of now, we have a month left to live. These are not just words. We have to shut down in a month. There’s a little bit of hope in today’s staff meeting, where I will ask the whole team if I can cut their pay and our expenses by quite a lot. If the team agrees we might be able to last another two or three months. So much as I’d like it to be, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows.

PAYWALL.

Anya Mongayt

It’s a pressing topic for us here, because we have decided to take some unusual measures. So, why is Dozhd going to sell its content?

Anna ‘Forsh’ Forshtreter

The audience paying for our content gives us freedom.  It provides independence. What we’re putting behind the paywall is the live broadcast: $26 for annual subscription.

That’s something you’re probably going to miss, but it will be reasonably priced.

Anya Mongayt

It’s truly a way for us to be independent.  It’s a new way for us to survive. If you are in the same boat, you’ll understand why we are doing this.

[cut to]

What? When are we going on air? Anya get ready.

July 2014.

News feature on the shooting down of a Malaysian passenger plane. Ad lib. Responsibilty give an advanced surface to air missile to terrorist fighting against Ukraine in Ukraine who did not understand the system.

[cut to]

Mikhail ‘Misha’ Zygar Editor in Chief.

Natasha has gone on vacation. Summer.

And suddenly, real combat operations begin in Donbass. And the first information comes in about Russian soldiers participating in real combat operations. I tasked all Dozhd staff with calling all Army recruitment offices to find out whether any Russian soldiers had been killed in Donbass. And to find out their last names.  

[in office]

Renat Davletgildeev

We are making a list of people to call urgently. Some of them possibly on air.  

[cut to Putin]

So the question is, ‘Is our army present in Ukraine or not?’ I’ll answer you directly. The Russian Army is not present in Ukraine.

[cut to] Timur Olvesky, war correspondent.

Also today, reports of strange disappearances of Russian soldiers. Reports are coming from other cities. On this list: Saratov, Kostroma, Pskov. Our reporters are trying to find out how many soldiers were buried in the town’s cemeteries. 

Today, my colleagues and I, and other journalists were repeatedly attacked after trying to talk to the families of the people most likely being buried in Pskov’s cemetaries.

[cut to Army reservist jumps in front of their car]

What do we do?

Wait. What do they want?

[voice outside the car] they will break your camera.

You slashed our tyres.

Guys! We’re leaving.

They’ve slashed our tyres. We’re being attacked. We can’t drive away. I was asked to come here. Wait. Wait. Wait. We’re being attacked by two young unknown men who have threatened us. The said there are many bogs around Pskov and that if we continue asking questions we’ll simply disappear.

[cut to]

Mikhail ‘Misha’ Zygar Editor in Chief.

Natasha has come back from holiday and asks me: ‘Am I imagining things, I was walking here from home and this black car seemed to be following me as if I’m being tailed.

I say, you know, I don’t think you are making it up. Look, this is what we’re up to.  

[cut to news]

Today, a Ukrainian press centre posted videos of four Russian soldiers captured by Zarleny village, near Donetsk.

[cut to press conference featuring a roomful of captured Russian soldiers]

[address them] ‘Hello, I’m Timor Olevsky,  a reporter from Russia’s Dozhd TV.

Q When did you understand who had detained you?

A When we were captured, we were told we were on Ukraine’s territory and were being held captive.

[fellow captive]

A  We didn’t know what was going on here. So we believed what the news showed.

Mikhail ‘Misha’ Zygar Editor in Chief.

We saw a jump in subscribers form around 15 000 to 50 000 in four days.

A month later, we got evicted. 

Natasha.

Option 1, we get our stuff together and move somewhere, where? Option 1 is to move to some factory.    

Mikhail ‘Misha’ Zygar Editor in Chief.

The idea of eviction at first seemed incomprehensible. It seemed terrifying for it to come true. If we got evicted we’d completely perish.

[cut to]

Vera Krichevskaya (tv producer)

I never again became part of the team, but I always stayed close. At that point, I realised how much I wanted to help Dozhd survive. In between my filmmaking projects, I try to make up for lost time. Back then, our goal was to keep the news on air, no matter what. But how? We had absolutely nowhere to go.

[cut to newroom]

My name is Mikhail Fishman. It’s 8pm on the 31st October  and I’m hosting the last ever broadcast from this great Dozhd studio.

I was thinking about what these years at Dozhd means to me.  I can tell you one thing, that it’s clear to me after all these years that Dozhd is a big deal and will be around a long time. Why am I alone? Come along. Join me guys.

Anna ‘Forsh’ Forshtreter

We would drive around looking at places for days on end. Five or six places a day. Someone from our side would start the initial discussions. Everything would be a good fit, then—the size, the price, the condition. Then we’d tell them we were an actual TV station. That was the moment they’d understand who we really were. 

Two days later, we’d get a ‘no’.

This was right before Natasha was planning to go to the United States.

[cut to]

I really miss everyone. Life is really hard over here.

[rejoinder]

I’ve heard life overseas is hard. Don’t know why you even bother going. Should have stayed with us.

It’s awful, the way they treat black people. Terrible.

Natasha, let’s talk business because there’s a ton of people here and we need to get moving on schedules.

[cut to]

Natasha

This was the first time I’d given up hope. I said, ‘That’s it. I can’t beat the machine.’

Anna ‘Forsh’ Forshtreter

So, one night, I called Natasha, I had this idea. I said, I know a place that’s perfect from a legal point of view. We can move in and nobody can stop us.

The view. That’s the Patriarch’s Pond there. Cool. Right?

Yeah.

This was Natasha’s flat in Central Moscow, which was not just unsuitable for a studio, but even for family life, because it was very much a bachelor pad. So, I go to this apartment with our engineers.

[cut to]

The mattress. Let’s lean it a bit.

That’s it.

We go into the bedroom and I say, ‘This will be the control room.’

Dec 2014

Natasha’s Appartment.

Secret Office.

Vera Krichevskaya (tv producer)

In the same building, the floor below Dozhd, housed an illegal brothel. Just like that. Two of the world’s oldest professions accidentally collided in the heart of Moscow. In a building owned by the Ministry of Defence.

Mikhail ‘Misha’ Zygar Editor in Chief.

Stop, Stop my friends, us posing a legal issue.  We’re gonna invite guest here. Roughly, every third guest will rat us out to everyone. But the KGB will find out about this on Tuesday…They already know. That’s all.

[cut to]

It’s 1.31 pm in Moscow. You’re watching Dozhd TV. Presenter Masha Makeeva.

Hello, we were stopped the Anti-Corruption Office where we are sitting on a windowsill next to Aleksei Navalny

I wanted to say, I’m very happy to be in your studio again.

But I’m very happy you dropped in and today our studio is a windowsill.

Natasha

I could feel a provocation coming on. People were afraid to leave the office at night. And my intuition came true. I called Forsch in the evening and said, Anna, pack up the studio, ASAP, I feel some shit’s going to happen.

Natasha to workforce.

The locks were covered in some sort of resin. They were shoved full of bolts. Basically, it took professionals, four hours to open the doors. No one has left us yet. Just as they are watching us, they still are. When it comes to work, we don’t have issues. But everything to do with your personal or political stuff…Just keep in mind it might become public.

[cut to]

Toast. A new life.

February 2015.  

Flacon

Anna ‘Forsh’ Forshtreter

Miracles happened to us all the time. Our new office found us by itself. I got a call. ‘Hello, We’ve got a 1000 square meters and we know you’re Dozhd.’

I said. ‘OK, when can I come for a viewing?’

‘How about right now?’

‘Of course.’

We had to move everything ourselves. We didn’t have a moving company. It was just us. Misha was here, carrying boxes.

Mikhail ‘Misha’ Zygar Editor in Chief.

We would always say we became very much like a cult. That we all felt this familiar cultish atmosphere.  It wasn’t a cult in the name of Natasha. It was in the name of… I don’t know. The name of freedom.

Anya Mongayt

People got lost here. Their whole life is here. Few people here have functional families.

Evgeniya  ‘Zhenya’ Voskoboynikovia (Journalist)

At some point you stop distinguishing your work from your life. And you don’t notice the moment of this transition.

Natasha.

Hello, this is Dozhd TV, from our new home and location.

Anna ‘Forsh’ Forshtreter

It wasn’t just for Natasha to keep her dream project. It wasn’t about her dream. It was mainly about saving [Dozhd]  as a source of information. It was for the cause. We had to save our cause.

Evgeniya  ‘Zhenya’ Voskoboynikovia (Journalist)

I want my country to look like the faces of these people. I think this is important.

[cut to]

Natasha.

Well, to a happy new life for us in Flacon.

Timor Olevsky

After that we were a family. Just a family.

Mikhail ‘Misha’ Zygar Editor in Chief.

We are the chosen ones. Everyone wanted to be us.

Alexei ‘Alien’ Navalny.

Nadya ‘Alien’ Pussyriot.

Natasha ‘Alien’ Sindeeva.

Attention! Foreign Agents.

Putin:

We’re ready to talk to the opposition. We’ll continue to have a partnership with civic society, in the most expansive meaning. We always listen to everyone who constructively criticises any action or inaction of the government. That is on, any level. This kind of dialogue, this partnership, is always healthy. They are absolutely necessary for any country, including our own.

[cut to]

Dozhd is back with an emergency broadcast. My name is Vladimir Romensky. We’re currently on Moscow City centre on Zamoskyvorosky bridge, where Boris Nemtsov has been murdered. He was shot, it’s not yet known by whom, right on this spot

[cut to newsroom]

I’m Pavel Lobkov here with the main news. Boris Nemtsov’s murder.

Natasha

There was a point when I got scared and I thought: This place is wide open and I don’t have security guards.   I do everything myself. For a while I lived with this fear. And the fear ate me alive. I kept looking back in case I was being followed, or somebody was waiting for me. I don’t dwell on it because I don’t know how to change my life so that it doesn’t happen. Probably, shut down the station and leave the country. So I don’t think about it. If anything, I’m afraid to think about it, because if I do, it will definitely happen.

Anna ‘Forsh’ Forshtreter

When the battle is over When you’ve carried all the wounded to the rear and fixed them up.  It’s over. And now you don’t know what to do next.

All the boys and girls. All the young hipsters have all gone grey. All the ‘light’ news pisses them off. Civilian life pisses them off.

Natasha.

We all started to have conflicts. We all started to hate each other. That was it, when we met at briefings, it was impossible.

[cut to broadcast] Pavel Lobkov

Q to Natasha.

There’s a sense of despair, I’m not going to be positive. I’m not going to say everything is great here. I want to say that we’re sick. We’re sick with narcissism. And all of this dancing. You can’t fake that smile for five years. We had good times, but like we had this pigskin-pink colour. Enough. There’s a dissonance now.

Natasha.

We’re not trying to replace serious journalism, and what we do with dancing. Nothing has changed. You know this.

[cut to outside broadcast, face against a police van window]

‘Russia without Putin! Russia without Putin!’ 

Excuse me I’m on Dozhd TV, could you please tell me if you’re being released today? [faces camera] Unfortunately, the police aren’t talking to us yet, but we’re still here.  Just to remind everybody, there’s eight of us here. It’s unclear what will happen next.

Natasha

In a county of 140 million, only 60 000 are willing to pay for independent news. The paywall keeps Dozhd alive. But you cannot change the world with such a small audience. Over these five years we won small battles, but the war was lost.  Our grand adventure failed to change the world for the better. As long as you are invisible behind a paywall and never break even, you are not a threat to the state.

Evgeniya  ‘Zhenya’ Voskoboynikovia (Journalist)

We are all really believed in this bright future.  It hasn’t come. It’s time to admit it.

Anya Mongayt

I recently watched a film about the great Russian writer Sorokin. It has this very depressing but spot-on phrases. He says: ‘Russia shouldn’t hope for things to get better in the future. Russia’s present is Russia’s future.’

[cut to Putin and dog, barking in front of two Japanese dignitaries. Putin gives the dog a treat. ]

Anya Mongayt

She gathered us all in a room and said, ‘You have to make me happy’.  She said, ‘If you don’t make me happy in a year. I’ll shut the whole damn thing down.’ 

Mikhail ‘Misha’ Kozreyv, Music Programming Producer: TV-Host.

I took it in the most pessimistic light. Maybe the last deadline had already past. And the decision to sell us off was fast approaching.

Vera Krichevskaya (tv producer)

It felt like the end. ‘If this is it,’ I said to Natasha, ‘I’m going to film it.’  But, as always with Dozhd, nothing went according to plan.

July 2019.

Moscow Summer Protests.

[cut to] We are unarmed. We are unarmed. ‘Hello to all Dozhd veiwers from this police van to which I was admitted during the process against the barring of opposition candidates from participating in Moscow City Council elections.

[cut to] PROTEST FOR ALLOWING INDEPENDENT CANDIDATES TO RUN FOR OFFICE.

We are unarmed. We are unarmed [chant]

[cut to newsroom and back to protest]

Masha we are going to leave you a second to go to Romensky. Right-now, they are trying to destroy the sit-in. People are being grabbed.

[cut to Natasha in studio]

We decided to hold this emergency broadcast late last night.

[cut to protest]

‘I’m a reporter. I’m a reporter.’

Natasha

We saw this was all completely lawless and unjust.  And realised we had to do something. So, we’re taking down the paywall for our  broadcasts.

Today you’ll be allowed to watch Fishman’s show for free. Please share and talk about it.

[cut to crowd, Fishman’s show]

‘They were pushing forward very roughly. Still, I’d never seen anything like this.’

Fishman:

We must be very open. We must be accessible. We must report things as we see them. This is our social mission as journalists, if you will.

After opening of paywall figures jumped. 18 000 viewers to 25 million (roughly). 

Anya.

Sorry to interrupt [coverage] but Dozhd TV is being raided. You can see it live. Police have entered our offices.  Right next to Natasha Sindeeva there are policemen, who are talking to her as we speak.  

There’s a cyber-attack happening against all of Dozhd’s internet channels. We have no internet connection. We can’t stream pictures from Trubanya Street or anything else that requires the internet.

Natasha.

[cut to] Hello Dad, sorry, did I wake you?

No worries.

I just thought I’d call. You must have read the news. I wanted to call, so that you didn’t worry. You were called in for questioning? You got a subpoena? I’m on my way to the Investigative Committee. Don’t worry, it’s about the protests.

OK. Thanks for calling. Good luck and good bye.

To say I was nervous was an understatement. This was my first time. This was my baptism of fire. This was my first subpoena, even with all of Dozhd’s difficult years and situations. 

In the morning at  the Investigative Committee my hands were sweating. This had never happened before.

[cut to Natash outside and her report]

I can tell you first they asked about how we covered the protests on July 27th. How we worked and who funded Dozhd TV. That’s it. There weren’t any other questions.

Q You came as a witness on the case? A witness?

[cut to Anya in studio]

The Moscow case isn’t over for our television station. Today, Natasha Sindeeva was called in for another interrogation  

Sasha.

I was worried. Of course. And the kids were even more worried. Because they didn’t understand what was going on. The night before, we had a long conversation about it. What to watch out for. What her strengths and weaknesses are. What to be wary of, what not to worry about, what to expect.

Natasha.

I was nervous. I didn’t sleep all night. I’d never been that scared before.

Sasha

It’s very difficult to decide what’s important to do in life—go to war and die heroically? Or live a long live and die from some common sickness? Both scenarios are possible for a person, or a TV station.  

December 2019.  

Natasha.

Right now people are unsubscribing for two reasons. First, they’re dissatisfied with the content etc, but that’s only a small part of it.

Second, people don’t have time of Dozhd. They don’t watch it, because they can’t find time.

?

Honestly, for the last few years I’ve had this feeling not only of stagnation, but of death This slow, horrible death, of this station, we all love.

?

If the most optimal way to reach our goal is to kill Dozhd, we need to kill it.

[cut to Natasha at home]

I’m awake at 4am yet again. I can’t sleep. It’s either old age or nerves. Dozhd is the thing that never lets you rest. You’re constantly thinking of where to find the money for all this.

At the beginning of 2019, I set myself a goal. By April 2020. Dozhd’d 10th birthday, I have to answer for myself. Only for myself. This question: What do I want to do with all this? I don’t know how I will answer this question in April.

Sasha believes closing the company is one of the best options. So that it just doesn’t die quietly, you know. But things can’t continue the way they are now.

Sasha

Selling the station to a media group is out of the question. We haven’t lived through our last ten years to end with a shitty thing like that.

Natasha

Sasha asked me, ‘Imagine you don’t have a TV station. It’s all good. Everything is calm. What do you do now?’

And I said, ‘I want to do the tango’.

[cut to Natasha doing the tango in a studio with a young male dancer]

Sasha.

Of course, I want to be the top priority for my wife and kids. But that’s extremely egotistical. It’s stupid and impossible. This is about our relationship. Not Dozhd. Even if not Dozhd, ‘Dancing with Stars’, or something else would have taken her, if not Dozhd. I just wish she could be next to me more often.

Natasha.

It’s unexpectedly hard to clap for yourself and to record. What I’m to say, I feel I must record it. Against the background of discussions and next moves etc. While all this was going on, last night I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Sometimes I think everything happens for a reason. Maybe it’s time for me to stop and think about what’s really important. Are you prepared to sacrifice yourself for some mission or goal?

Where do your priorities lie?

Or, at the very least, this is a chance for me to stop and think.

Anya.

Dozhd means so much—socially, emotionally, historically—that if Natasha decides to shut it down, people won’t forgive her.  If, at a certain point, she decided to pull the plug, she will be always be remembered as the person that killed Dozhd. And not even Putin wants that honour.

February 2020.

Freiburg, Germany.

Vera Krichevskaya (tv producer)

Natasha had never been away from Russia this long. She decided to take a break from the news.

Natasha.

I don’t miss it at all. You know I was guided by illusions. For quite a long time, I hoped things would change. But my optimism has run out. I’m not saying that I’m depressed all the time, but…yeah, I’ve reconciled myself to the fact that Putin is here to stay. He’ll be in power as long as he lives. I can’t say I know what to do with the rest of my life. But it’s definitely something I’m thinking about a lot.

Vera Krichevskaya (tv producer)

On our way to radiotherapy we found out that Vladimir Putin announced new constitutional amendments that let him stay in power until 2036, when Natasha will be 65. 

[cut to Putin]

Our duty is to protect the Constitution. To respect it, as we respect our country, our history and our accomplishments.

2003.

[cut to Putin speech]

I oppose anyone—however good their intentions—violating the Constitution of our country.

I repeat myself, we should protect the Constituion. I oppose any changes to it.

2007

[cut to Putin speech]

Amending the Constitution to serve a specific person is, I think, wrong.

2018

[cut to Putin speech]

I have never altered the Constitution. I wouldn’t do it for myself, and I don’t plan to, even today.

2020

 [cut to Putin speech]

I repeat once again, these amendments have been necessary for a long time, and I’m sure they’ll be useful to this country and its citizens.

Natasha [radiotherapy for her breast cancer]

You understand that nothing’s happening, things are getting worse. You just have to figure out how to live and exist in this. I think we live in a world that is so inverted, unfortunately, where our people get bullied, locked up, arrested, punished, killed, and persecuted and so on. There are very few of them. These people, us who fall prey to this machine. There are few of them. And, in that case, yes, you have to stick with each other. It’s very important. And not to betray your people. Is this journalistic? Probably not. Human. Yes.

I have remained human for ten years, and have never betrayed myself and my values. That’s more important to me. I don’t care whether I remain in history as an unprofessional media manager. But I remained a human with compassion, conscience and responsibility. 

Vera Krichevskaya (tv producer)

When we shot the interview, she took breaks every twenty minutes to wash off the sweat. Still, the first thing she did when she got to Germany was finding a local tango teacher.

[cut to Natasha dancing a tango with her teacher]

The worse she felt the more she thought about dancing. Her goal was to ‘master the tango with tricks’ before she returned to Moscow.

April 2020.

 Moscow.

What is really going on in the hospitals and in the regions?

Natasha.

Right now, journalists are like doctors. They’ve ended up in the frontlines. Just like doctors have, although neither of them wanted to be. For journalists, this moment calls for an act of bravery.  

I completely stopped thinking about what I’ve been thinking about for the past year. About where I should go, leave, stay, or shut this down. I’ve gained a better understanding of why we need Dozhd and why we need to work. Our task to explain that to people, to be a guide in this complex situation. You know, when they cut out this sickness, it felt like they cut out something unnecessary. Something bad has left and I feel lighter inside. And I think, or need even think, I know that Dozhd needs to exist.

[cut to Moscow office]

Natasha.

[champagne] have you looked inside the fridge.

What’s in there?

It’s very beautiful in there. Though there’s less already.

[with friends]

Natasha.

I’ve lost weight. Got in shape. I feel great, I’m ready to fight. I really want to work and think we’re entering another good phase. So, I invite everyone to have a drink. Please make sure everyone has a drink.

[toast]

So to us. We haven’t been together in a while.

Natasha.

Today is 17th June, 2020. And there’s less than 2 weeks until the referendum.  I just got a call from the editor-in-chief, who said the police were at Dozhd. To question one of our reporters, who’s been investigating online voter fraud. 

Sasha

They can shut the station down at any time. They can put all sorts of pressure on us, literally. Even something directed at the owners of the station. I don’t think anyone doubts that for a second.

Moscow. Eve of the Constitution Referendum, June 2020.

Why won’t they tell people honestly that you want to rule over Russia for 36 years—7 years longer than Stalin? And two years longer than Catherine the Great? [broadcaster]

Natasha.

We want to release this at 3pm, alongside Putin’s address.

Today?

Yes, today.

We’ve grown up. Who are we to know who to love? No. [broadcaster]

Natasha

Hello. Hello, take this [camera phone] I’m here to vote on the constitutional amendments.  Let me take this selfie[shot]?   That’s it. Ballot paper and vote (camera shot) Not sure if it’s visible?

[cut to outside polling station]

Of course, this is all for show. The amendments have already been approved. I don’t really know why I bothered, but since this is the first time in a long time I’ve got the opportunity to say, ‘NO’ to tick that box. I decided to go.

Sasha.

I decided not to vote. The main reason is that I don’t think the state can be changed by some kind of flashmob. I don’t think it will be changed by elections. It will be changed in some other way.

Results are as follows: YES 77.92%. NO 21.27%.

Natasha.

Dozhd. So for the first time in ten years we’re celebrating in this zoom format.

The station changed us in many ways. The station and the changing times. Being in the middle of all these events and movements really changed us and the way we viewed life. What is or isn’t important. 

So, here’s the station, right. I think it had quite an effect on, among others, how we evolved as a family, as individuals, as Sasha, and I.

I think Sasha doesn’t regret it either. And believes all of it was done right.

Q) Vera Krichevskaya (tv producer)

Is Dozhd the right kind of investment or the right kind of loss?

A The right kind of loss.  

Sasha

She regards this as her life’s work. Not a responsibility, not a burden, but her life’s work. And if it’s your life’s work, you have to do it well. You need to somehow see it through to the end.

Natasha.

This is my life, Vera. I now understand this is my life, you know. I’m now at a place where I can say, this is my life. And this is how I’m living it.

After the summer of 2020, Dozhd intensified its news coverage and started publishing on YouTube for free. There, broadcasts quickly reached tens of millions and quickly allowed Dozhd to pay off its debts.

In May 2021, Dozhd was banned from the Kremlin’s press corps, ‘for covering the protests in support of Alexey Navalny’.

In August 2021, a month before the Parliamentary elections, the Russian Ministry of Justice labelled Dozhd as ‘a foreign agent’.

In February 2022, Russian troops invaded Ukraine.

In March 2022, after six days of live coverage of the war in Ukraine, the Russian government shut Dozhd down again. Its new is available in Russia again as long as YouTube is available in Russia.

Natasha and Sasha have separated.

Tango with Putin charts Natasha’s journey, from building the station, Dozhd, to recruiting an open-minded team of outcasts who find themselves reporting on some of the biggest and most controversial stories of the day while trying to protect independent journalism in their country.

Storyville, Try Harder, BBC 4, BBC iPlayer, directed by Debbie Lum.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m0014j4m/storyville-try-harder

I’m unfamiliar with the American college application process. It’s a big country, but modelled, in theory, so school-test scores determine which colleges will accept students. The American dream is a quite simple belief that if you work hard you’ll get your just rewards. Student, Tina Zheng, for example, plans to be a brain surgeon.

The adolescents featured in this documentary stay mostly tight-lipped. Their collective goal is to get into an Ivy League College. Harvard is mentioned. Stanford College features as a possibility, but with less than five percent chance of gaining entry. And UCLA. They are all A+ students. Rachel Schmidt’s test-scores, for example, put her in the top 1% in America. Alvan Cai’s mum and dad come from Taiwan. They do everything for their son. Test scores in Taiwan determine a boy’s future. They have left nothing to chance. But Alvan worries that his parents are out of step. Offering vouchers for food or the pictures or even a red envelope with God knows in it might be regarded as bribery by college administrators. UCLA, for example, receive over 102 000 applicants to study at their college every year. That number is growing and increasingly most applicants will have A+ grade to have a realistic chance to be considered.

Granada’s documentary series 7UP, a World in Action special in 1964 had much the same premise. The Jesuit dictum:  ‘Give me the boy and I’ll give you the man’. Director Michael Apted is dead now, but I think we are up to 64UP.  It was classified a snapshot of social class. Looking at it a life-time later, it went pretty much as expected. Those Eton-educated kids with marbles in their mouths did prosper and did go to Oxbridge Universities.  

Debbie Lum has her viewfinder not so much on class but race and ethnicity. San Francisco’s Lowell High School is a hothouse of the super-smart. The majority of whom are one of the fastest growing proportion of the American immigrant population—Asian Americans. Ivy League colleges their teachers warn them view high-test scores from Lowell students as a given, but question whether such students can think for themselves. Viewing them as robotic. In other words, such institutions are inherently racist, but without acknowledging, for example, college quota’s for Jewish students that were in place until the 1950s. Black students, of course, had their own colleges.

Class bias is often race in disguise. In 21UP, for example, the Yorkshire son of a farmer told how his cohort in university assumed he’d be stupid because of the way he spoke and the accent he used. Similarly, Rachel Schmidt who has a black mother may be smarter than most, even at Lowell, but her successful application to Stanford College was due to her being black. Asian Americans adopting the arguments of the far-right white groups that would send them back to wherever, because it didn’t really matter. The only thing that did matter for Neo-Nazis was they weren’t white and therefore couldn’t be right. In fact, were stupid. In the land of the free, Richard Powers,  Overstory, characterisation: ‘The immigrant’s son yields to the disease of improvement before there is an effective cure’.     

Storyville, Misha and the Wolves, BBC 4, BBC iPlayer, Writer and Director Sam Hobkinson.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m00142bh/storyville-misha-and-the-wolves

Jessica Brody, Save the Cat! Writes a Novel takes lessons from screenwriters.. The Hero’s journey. The ‘shard of glass’. ‘A psychological wound that has been festering beneath the surface of your hero for a long time.’

The moron’s moron, for example, a narcissistic psychopath with a troubled childhood that lies, lies and lies again. He hooks up a band of far-right fundamentalist Christians and other far-right hate groups until he begins to believe everything he says must be true because they’re saying it too. Find support from the Russian dictator, Vladimir Putin, and Kremlin backed ability to produce propaganda and hatebomb through Facebook, predominantly. And he gets elected the 45th American President.  

Misha Defonseca stood up in her local synagogue in the early 1990s and told an extraordinary story about Holocaust survival and triumph. The shard of glass was shown, and people wept. Jane Daniel owned a small publishing company in Millis. She urged Misha to write her story down. For around two years Misha refused, but then the true hero finds his/her truth, and she writes her extraordinary story.

Jane Daniel’s recognised its potential for commercial value. Because not only was it Holocaust literature, which generally sold well, but it had a Save-the- Cat-type twist. Misha, the seven-year-old heroine, trudged from her Belgian home in search of her parents. She was befriended by a she-wolf in the forest and became part of the wolf pack living off scraps of meat, and distrustful of humans.

Misha and the Wolves published April 1997, Mt. Ivy Press, Boston. It sells reasonably well internationally and at home. Oprah Winfrey comes calling. A spot on Oprah’s Book Club, Jane Daniel’s explains guarantees over a million sales. Disney talk about making a film of the book. A virtuous circle of sales and publicity. Win-win.

Lose-lose. Misha balks at going on Oprah. She sues Jane Daniels for return of her book rights.  

Middlesex Superior Court, Massachusetts, August 2001. Jane Daniels is shown to have deposited money in the tax haven of Turks Cacao (beloved of crooks and internet giants)  which she never paid royalties, and which she disputes. After a ten-day trial, the jury found for Misha on all counts and awarded her $22.5 million damages.  

The Hero may not be as simple as you think, Save the Cat advises writers.

ACT 2. The Hero decides to accept the call to action.  The Hero ‘shard of glass’ is the court judgement against her. Jane Daniel takes on the world of Misha and the Wolves. She assembles a team and cast of characters to help her.

ACT 3. Setbacks and false defeats. The HERO triumphs. But there is a sting in the tale. Trump gets elected President, fails to win re-election and commits treason. His supporters attempt to stage a right-wing coup.

Misha does not go to live with the wolves, but is fed to the wolves.  

  Deborah Dwork (The Holocaust Historian) I think we would like to believe that [the moron’s moron Donald Trump] Misha Defonseca believed. That [he]she was a survivor of the Holocaust [electoral fraud]. I think we would like to believe that we were not so naïve. That we believed it, because she believed it. And we would even like to believe that this narrative has a redemptive purpose. Because it made right the wrong of her childhood. I think it’s nonsense. There is no redemptive purpose. We were so naïve. It was all a fabrication. 

Evelyne Haendel: ‘It’s human to believe. Creditability is something else. It’s your need to question things or not that will help you discern what’s true and what’s not.’ 

NOTES:

There’s a saying in Millis, small-town big family. We became friends with Maurice and Misha. Belgian refugees. Eccentric personality. I never saw anybody that had such a relationship with animals and had so many cats. She told me about her life, during the war.

Misha was waiting for her father to pick her up from school. And he never came. A woman tapped her on the shoulder and said ‘Come with me’. She was taken into a family that she didn’t know. She was given a new name and different clothes.

When she was only seven years old she walked alone through Nazi occupied countries. Across thousands of miles in search of her deported parents.

Misha: ‘I never discovered my parents or where they went to. To this day, I do not know’

I was asked to speak about my story. Temple Beth Torah. My husband convinced me to do it. Saying it would free me. When I went up to the Beema. I realised I was going to speak for the first time. I burst into tears. And slowly, snatches. I began to tell.

The dramatic tale of a woman whose Holocaust memoir took the world by storm, but a fallout with her publisher – who turned detective – revealed an audacious deception created to hide a darker truth.

Karen Schulman (The Friend) I was mesmerised. I had tears in my eyes. She was hungry. She was thirsty. She was cold. She wanted her parents. How did this person (this little girl) survive?

‘If they think I’m alive, I can’t let them down. I have to keep going.’

You could hear a pin drop. Everyone was entranced with her story. I never expected to hear what I heard. When Misha was seven her parents were arrested by the Nazis. And she was told they’d been deported. She was place in the care of a Catholic family. Called De Wael. It was a safe place. They gave her a new identity. Monique De Wael. The deception saved her, but she felt very alienated there.

‘I ended up in a family that didn’t love me. That’s the least you could say. They hated me there. They would call me ‘worthless’ ’.

There was a grandfather in the family that was kindly. ‘He told me, my parents were in Germany.’

‘He showed me with a compass, that Germany was in the East. So Germany didn’t seem that far.’

At that point Misha made a tremendous decision. It turned her life upside down.

She decided at the age of seven to walk to Germany, to find her parents.

So she took her compass and some supplies and started walking. Heading East.

‘I know exactly what to do. I need the basic. I need food. Something to drink. To have a light for protection. ‘

‘The first night I slept under a bridge. It was not far from home.’

‘Each time I approach a village, I see the station.’

She had to hide from the Nazis. Being alone in the forest. Having to steal food. Freezing temperatures. She had been traumatised by this.

‘Killing. I saw killing. The dead people. It was really desperate. I dreamed of seeing my parents. So I stayed deep in the woods. Away from the war.’

When she was away from the woods, she was away from people being sent to concentration camps. She was away from the horror that was happening in the cities. She was with birds and flowers. She said that was what saved her.

‘I completely gave into the wild life. I saw animals living normally. Eating just what they need. Not more than they need.’

‘With animals I didn’t need any words. We were near each other, in silence. And understood, without words.’

 Jane Daniel. (The publisher). I was thinking this would make a fascinating book.  I had a small publishing company. And I mean tiny. And I was looking around for new project. I was the one that said, can we take this public?  Take it to another level?

I could make something big out of this. There’s a market for this story. Because it had an amazing twist.

‘I remember, I’d just been called by a farmer who saw me stealing food from his farm. I run away, full of fear. When you run away, you run very hard. Suddenly, I had the impression somebody was watching me. I turn around and see this magnificent animal. To me it was like a huge dog. The wolf seemed alone. And I needed a companion. It was a beautiful grey she-wolf. I look in my bag for something to eat. And I give a piece to the wolf, which it doesn’t take.

It takes a long time. But after a while, we would walk in parallel. I was able to see its generosity. To see the strength it had. I was able to live with it. She was like a mother to me.

Much later, it was a whole pack of wolves. I don’t know how long I was with them. They accepted and protected me.’

 Jonni Soffron. The Wolf Expert. Wow, this is quite a story. Misha was very different from most people I met. She should have been an animal. Or her spirit is an animal. We talked about being accepted by the pack, but treated as a low-ranking member. And she had to exhibit low-ranking behaviour, in order to be with them.

Misha said, typically, the alpha male would eat first. The others would lay around the carcase waiting for their turn. They would leave little scraps, in close proximity to where she was, when they were finished.

‘Wolves eat 10kg, in one meal. The leftovers were more than enough for me.’

We became very good friends. She visited multiple times. She would hand-feed them the pieces of meat. I think they sensed in Misha, she was a friend, as opposed to a foe. She had such a sense of being with them. It was as if she belonged in there.

‘I had no reason to stop walking. It’s what I done every day. Day after day. Month after month. I hoped to find my parents. Figuring, if I’d survived as a child. My parents must have survived. This belief helps me continue.’

Jane Daniel, Publisher. This is a moral narrative The battle between good and evil. The innocent child and the evil Nazis. And the child survived. It had mythic qualities. It could take my little publishing company to a world-wide happening. So I asked Misha if she would be interested in publishing her stories.

‘With everything I went through, I learned to mistrust people.’

I don’t think she was very impressed with me. There was no reason she should be. The only book I’d published before was a legal-financial book. Not exactly her thing.

‘For more than 2 years I refused. But my friends and community said to me “Misha, do it” for future generations.’

‘I found myself in hell, again.’

It was a painful process, but it was as if she was compelled to tell her story. As if it was some kind of catharsis. Everyone was stepping up. All over the world we were selling the translation rights. My agent came back from California and said “Disney wants this. Period”.  This was the case of a hot property.

When the book was published April 1997, Mt. Ivy Press, Boston.  I said, let’s see if we can get Oprah to do this.  Oprah had her book club. If you were one of her books, you had a guaranteed sale of one million books. They said they were interested. So that’s a big, big deal. And we’re beginning to say, we’re heading into a monster bestseller here. (Misha, The Memoir of the Holocaust Years)

Jonni Soffron. The Wolf Expert. Jane Daniels said they (Oprah) wanted to send a crew and film Misha in the wolves. So I said , yeh. (Wolf Hollow in Ipswich).  I told Misha before we went into the enclosue, “This is an adult wolf. He’s a very big boy. His name is Pedro.’

Jane Daniel, Publisher. Nobody went in but Misha. The sound man had his boom over the fence. Misha squatted down and she’s feed the wolf. Everything is going fine. The wolf is very friendly. And then the wolf decided to put its paws up on her shoulders.

Jonni Soffron. Pedro was much taller than she.

Jane Daniel. Then all of a sudden, very quickly opened his mouth and put her whole head in his mouth. Very gently. Fangs on both temples.

‘I had no fear. Nobody talk about  the big bad wolf to me.’

Jane Daniel: The wolf held her head for a minute. We stopped breathing. Then just as fast as it happened, it was over. At that point, Misha appears and lets out a big howl. At this point I get goosebumps. Way back in the pen, we hear an owww coming back.

Jonni Soffron. When she howled, they immediately howled back. 

Jane Daniel: There it was, you could immediately see the connection between the human and wolf. I saw it. It was amazing. A shocking moment. So they got a really lot of interesting footage. I thought this is going to make a great Oprah show. The next step was she was to go to Chicago for the studio portion.

Jonni Soffron. Things were going swimmingly well. Then I began to see some tension between Misha and Jane.

Karen Schulman (The Friend) It wasn’t very pleasant as time went on. The book wasn’t selling very well. She kept saying “I have no money. I have nothing. Jane Daniels is no good.” I felt saddened. But Misha was sitting at my table one night and said to me: “She didn’t want to go on Oprah Winfrey”.  I said, gee Misha. I don’t understand that.

Pat Cunnigham. (The Neighbour). Well Misha and Maurice were having financial difficulties. Then she started selling things from her house. I felt bad, they were losing everything.

Jane Daniel: All of a sudden Misha is not co-operative. Had one objection after another. Doesn’t return phone calls. She doesn’t want to go. It’s inconvenient. She needs somebody to take care of her animals at home.

‘Jane made me so mad. So insecure. My husband said many times. “We’re a survivor. You don’t use that kind of attitude”.

Jane Daniel. Come on, it’s Oprah. You find a dog sitter or pet sitter, or whatever. You make yourself available. “No!”

‘The bad memory came back. I had a nightmare. I was very anxious.’

I tried everything. I wrote her notes: This is a million sales. “No, No, No”.  I thought this is crazy. Any other author would be falling over themselves to do this. It never happened.

A year after the book came out, there’s a knock on the door. And I’m handed a big package. It’s Misha filing a lawsuit against me. Everything stopped. No other country wanted to do business with us. We had a lawsuit attached to this project.

Romana Hamblin (The Attorney) The first time I met Misha, I felt very compelled by the circumstances of the case. It was clear to me that several things had been done that were improper, illegal, fraudulent.

Misha was asking for return of the copyright. And for all of the royalties which she was due for book sales.

‘Jane Daniels saw in my life a goldmine. And she took advantage of it.’

Romana Hamblin (The Attorney)  There was so much anger and bitterness by the time I got involved. There was not much room for negotiation.

Jane Daniels It was clear we were going to trial. It wasn’t going to settle out of court.

Middlesex Superior Court, Massachusetts, August 2001.

Jonni Soffron :The sense in the courtroom was a lot of drama. The atmosphere was pretty tense. Then, of course, the money comes up.

Romana Hamblin (The Attorney)  We found that Jane Daniels had set up a company in Turks Cacao so that contracts that came from overseas came directly into her account and she never paid royalties.

Jane Daniels, We had documents to show that she’d been paid. We had cancelled cheques to show that she’d been paid. So everything she was saying, we had documentation to refute.

Jonni Soffron but she could speak no falsehood. Where’s the money? Jury was very sympathetic.

Romana Hamblin, The jury was riveted. Here was a person in front of you that had survived the Holocaust. They were engaged and absolutely enthralled by this story.

Misha was a good witness.

‘Oh what I live is…because it’s my life.’

Jane Daniels: It just made me look like a monster. And I thought. This is not going well.

‘Jane was always fighting. She fought for what she wanted.’

There was a 10 day trial and it was gruelling.

JD: The Judge asks the jury, how do you find on count one? 

Romana Hamblin: The jury found unanimously for Misha on all counts.

JD: I mean, ultimately they came in for a massive judgement against me.

Jonni Soffron. It was kind of mind-boggling to hear the number. I was blown away. I said, ‘are you kidding me?’

Romana Hamblin, $22.5m. It was a very large verdict.

JD: I’m an optimistic person. But that hit me like a ton of bricks.

RH: The money damages against JD was largely based on JD’s testimony. This was going to be on Oprah. There was some contract with Disney. There were thing JD testified to that really elevated the level of damages. Well beyond what would seem supportable to a book like this. So everybody paid attention. People love a big verdict.

JD. Disney had fallen through. Oprah had fallen through. There was no millions of dollars. It’s an untenable position to be in. A cruel exploited of an innocent Holocaust survivor. Your world falls apart at that point.

After the trial. This was the lowest point in my life. I ended up going into therapy and being diagnosed with PTSD. I had horrible insomnia.  I was hanging on by my fingernails. My publishing company was gone. My copyright was taken away. I mean, I was destroyed at that point.

I ended up doing a post-mortem on what had happened. Looking at it piece by piece by piece. I was in my lawyer’s office going through old records and documents. I had no idea what I was going to find. I opened a bank account. And it’s in Misha’s writing. And it’s her signature card. And on there it says, date and place of birth, 5/12/37, ETERBEEK. And mother’s maiden name: DONVILLE.

All of a sudden I get a flash. She knows who she is. She knows where she was born. She knows who her mother was. This was stuff she supposedly didn’t know She lost her identity in the war. This doesn’t add up. Clearly, she know a lot more about who she was than what she had told me. What else might not be true? I had be owned by courts and lawyers. My life had been turned upside down. I wanted my life back. If I can prove she’s not who she said she is, I can overturn this judgement.

It was the dead of winter. The days were short. I was standing in my kitchen. And I thought, I have to do something.

I started recalling all the things that had happened. How I’d met her. What had happened there. What happened and how did the law suit come about? And then I thought, I’ll write a book about the case. I’ll do it as a blog. I was writing my memoir of her memoir. And maybe somebody will read it. Talk about a long shot.

The next day, I get up. I turn on my computer and there’s an email. The email says,

Sharon Sergeant. (The Genealogist)I think I may be able to help find out what’s the real story. I did a timeline of Misha from a variety of photographs. First from the book. Then from other images on the internet. So I could get a sense of her life.

JD: I wanted to know who she was. Who is this person who has just ruined my life.

Sharon Sergeant: Each photograph I tried to analyse to find out what kind of information I could squeeze out of it. The first clue was Misha claimed she was 7 years old, when she was taken in by this foster family.  In the American book there was what are called polyphonic images. And the poly photos were taken at that time. And I looked at the photos and thought, No, this doesn’t look like a 7 year old. This looks like a toddler. 3-4 years old. Big bow in her hair, chubby, chubby cheeks, frilly clothes. Something’s wrong.

ERNEST and MARTHEW.

The next picture I looked at was who Misha said was her forster grandfather and grandmother. According to the narrative, he’s a rustic, farm man. I did a close-up of the hands of grandfather, which were manicured (nails). Did not look like a farm person’s hands. And he had a ring on one of his fingers. Not the kind of thing a farmer would wear.

And the little dog on grandmother’s lap, that looks like a little house dog.  Not a farm dog. I thought, jeez, that’s strange.

And that’s when I started comparing the French and American books. I was looking at names and places and dates. [De Wael, grandmother and grandmother]. That was the big red flag.

JD. She called me and said, did you notice Misha’s name is different in the French from the one she used in the American book? 

 In the American book the name she was given by the foster parents was De Wael. The foster family gave her the name Mme Valle. Why would you have two different names?

 Sharon Sergeant. There’s too many discrepancies between the name changes and the pictures and so on. Fishy, yeh. Definitely seemed fishy.

JDaniels. If her story were true and I was doubting it there was something particularly vicious about doubting somebody that is telling the truth about something that’s happened. The callousness to say I don’t believe you. And the harm you can cause. That was in my mind. On the other hand, so many discrepancies.  Why would you be saying things that aren’t true? Maybe she’s so traumatised she’s just lost her grip on reality. How much did that explain, I didn’t know. I needed a lot of answers at that point.

We need boots on the ground. In Belguim. (Brussels).

Sharon had a connection with a Belgian genealogist, who was herself a Holocaust survivor? As it turned out, she grew up in the area Misha claimed to have lived in.

Evelyne Haendel (The Holocaust Survivor) During the war, I myself was a hidden child. I went to a Catholic school. And I became a very good little Catholic girl.  I have no recollection of anybody telling me what happened to my parents. I have no memory at all. I was about 40 and I went through a sort of terrible breakdown, which led me to find what happened to me, in fact. And what happened to my parents. And my family. And I started to make research.

I found out my father was deported to Auschwitz in September 1942. My mother was arrested in October in Brussels. And deported to Auschwitz. I was told they didn’t come back. So, I went by car to Auschwitz. I saw the camp. Where there was not a single soul. The chambers. The gas chambers were exploded. I found some candles we call ‘yeseh?’ still burning the rubble of the gas chambers. Before evening, I had a Star of David done in dried flowers. I just didn’t know where to put it. I couldn’t put it at the monument. So, finally, I choose the little pond. It floated there. And I think that was the time that I…Sorry…put my parents to rest. My parents. My grandmother, my cousin.

JR. Evelyne is a Holocaust survivor whose story is very much like Misha’s. So she was the perfect person to find out what was going on.  

Sharon Sergeant. In the French book the foster family had a surname of Valle. In the American book the surname was De Wael.

Royal Library of Belgium. To reconcile the name changes Evelyne went through the city directories for the 1930 and 1940s.

Evelyne Haendel. I came for three days, searching for the De Wael and the Valle’s. The name Valle was not in the phone books. Valle name didn’t exist. De Wael, yes. Many, many.

Jane Daniels: Now you start to think the French book was distributed in Belgium. If something about Misha’s story wasn’t true, it would be important for her not to put her real name in that book. There would be somebody over there who would say, ‘I know the De Wael family. I know whether or not she was around or disappeared during the war’.

Sharon Sergeant, The fact that she changed the name in France and Belguim from DeWael to Ville suggest to me she’s trying to hide something.

JD: Sharon and I both looked at this and said. ‘Something’s really wrong with this story’.

So at this point, the book had been taken over by a French publisher. And it was a huge hit. I was published in 20 languages. She was speaking to school children, all over the French speaking world.

Marie-Claire Mommer. (The School teacher) In 2005, I was planning on creating a professor of psychology, a project on this young child who experienced all these adventures.  The project became a huge magnificent exhibition.  Then we had the idea of to try and bring her to Belgium.

We watched her get out of the train. It was a fascinating sight. She was dressed in blue, like a shining canary, with all its colours.  With two, no three, big suitcases.

She came towards me all radiant and beaming. Right away, she exhibits a very dynamic character. Very welcoming. And very generous.

When Misha entered the exhibition she collapsed.

‘I was not warned of this. So when I visited the exhibition, I burst into tears. Because it touched me very deeply.’

She was so delighted to be there. But on the other hand, we saw the sadness come out.  And the tears, the tears, the tears. It was very emotional.

JR: in the book, Misha says her parents were arrested by the Nazis and deported. Although she didn’t know their surname. Their names were GERUSHA and REUVEN. Evelyne? Said I have access to the Nazi records of deportation. I’ll take those records and see if I can find them. If they were deported, almost simultaneously with those names.

. When we examined the deportation list, we found they were not deported as a husband and wife.

War Victims Archive, Brussels.

 Evelyne Haendel, During the war, the French/Belgian committee had made a list of hidden children. With the name of their rescuer and the name of their parents. There was a real, real, risk these archives would be taken by the Nazis. Children would be found. And killed. But it was quite clever. There were four different booklets. You needed all four to find the child. But all four of them were in different places. If any Nazi found a single booklet, they would not be able to trace the child. But, at the end of the war, with the four different booklets, there would have been a way to find whose child it was. And so I searched for Misha’s parents. No names of the parents. So, I knew there was something wrong. And in the list of hidden children, they didn’t have Misha. And they didn’t have DeWael. That is for sure. She was not mentioned.

Marie-Claire Mommer. (The School teacher) Misha’s book had a snowball effect. Already millions of books had been sold. Thereafter we had to work to prepare the conferences. And get her to them. So we were always together. At that time, she would often come back to our home. She would eat with us. She was like a member of the family. We had dozens of events. Of course, we took her to them. She was always welcomed by the organisers. And always with a lot of friendliness and kindness. Everyone left the conferences dazzled by this character.

War Victims Archive, Brussels.

 Evelyne Haendel. I was stuck, really. No findings. But no proof. So that was the point that I thought that she could have been undocumented. Some children were hidden. But not necessarily through organisations. As extraordinary as her story was, I had to keep in mind she might have been a Jewish, hidden child.

Jane Daniels. So now the stakes go up. I will feel a lot of guilt, if this story is true. I’m digging into her past. And what if it is true. How unfair to challenge her. And even if it’s mostly true, but not quite…How unfair to disrespect what she’s been through. I felt I’d been cast in a play, I didn’t audition for. I didn’t want the part. I didn’t want to be in the play. It was devouring me. This had taken over my own life. But I’ve had this judgement hanging over my head for quite a while, I’d lost the appeal. I was looking at the possibility of being completely wiped out. So it was starting to get pretty uncomfortable. But I needed to get to the truth. So when we had no Jewish records to support her story, the question is, maybe she’s not even Jewish?

Evelyne Haendel, If she’s not Jewish, then she’s most likely Catholic.

Jane Daniels. If she was Catholic, perhaps she was baptised. 

Sharon Sergeant, Misha’s bank records from the trial, said she was born in 1937, her mother’s maiden name was Donneville. And she was born in Etterb. A suburb of Brussels.

Evelyne Haendel: So in Etterb, I searched for different churches.

JD. The first, the second, the third had burned to the ground. I thought, we’re probably sunk now. Because the records were probably destroyed in the fire.

Evelyne Haendel. But the office of the Presbytery was in an adjoining street.

JD. They were preserved. So Evelyne was looking date by date by date. All the children born in that parish.

Evelyne Haendel, I knew two things, her date of birth, 12th May 1937. And the mother’s name. And in that book, I found her. Monique Emesfina Josipshiux De Wael. Daughter of Roberti Floneca Ernesti and Josiphina Germane Barbashei Donil.

JD the revelation was that Misha’s father’s name was De Wael. So her real name was Monique De Wael. It wasn’t a name given to her by foster parents to hide her from the Nazis. It seems she was born Monique De Wael. She was a Catholic. She was baptised Catholic. Her father was De Wael. However, it wasn’t proof conclusive. Because in those days they used to take names of dead children and give them to Jewish children, by way of hiding them.  

 Sharon Sergeant. It was possible that the DeWaels had taken in a Jewish child and their own child had died.

Evelyne Haendel. I needed further proof.

[what did you do next?]

Off the record, this is a good question.

JR. Evelyne figured out, where can I find this proof?

Evelyne Haendel. She would have gone to school.

Sharon Sergeant: I tried to find the school, in the tram track she mentioned in her book.

Evelyne Haendel: And as I walked by, I had the school. The door was open. I walked in and asked if they had any someone with the name of Monique De Wael.

JR. So, we’re biting our fingernails to the point where they’re actually bleeding, waiting for this information. Either we’ve got the records or we don’t.   (2/9/37). That was the final proof. Both the Baptismal certificate and her attendance in the school.

JR. I got to the phone and I picked up the phone and it was Sharon. And Sharon could hardly contain her excitement. Practically, screamed into the phone, we’ve got the records. We’ve got the records. That was the smoking gun. Now I’ve caught her in a lie. My life had been contaminated by a whole spiderweb of lies. And here it is. Exposed as a hoax. Now, I thought, the whole story she tells in the book, falls apart. At that point I knew she was not who she said she was. Not only was she not a Jewish child hiding in the forest from the Nazis. She was a Catholic child, safely enrolled in school. She wasn’t anywhere near wolves. She was playing to an audience. She knew exactly what she was doing. Now we can see this not just a little white fib. This is a massive conspiracy over 20 years to propagate what was a complete falsehood. This was not the real Misha.

Evelyne Haendel: I had many feelings. I felt angry. I felt disgusted. I just saw the fake history. The fake identity. A way to get money out of the Holocaust.  Somebody stole a very painful part of my life. I felt it for myself. And for all the hidden children. The dead children. Through the Holocaust. For all the parents. For my parents. But, in fact, for all the Jewish community.

JR. At the point we got the records, the book was a huge bestseller, all over Europe. And the book had just came out. And the movie was called. ‘Surviving with Wolves’.

It had Premiered in Paris, ‘Based on a true story’. And here we’re holding these documents. So we said, let’s go with this. Let’s put it on my blog. And email somebody over in Belgium.

The next morning it had broken, front page of all the newspapers. We had fired a truth bomb. It had landed. The whole fake thing blew up.

Jonni Soffron, I went home. Put her name on my computer. And there it was. And it felt like my blood just drained from my body. You know, how can this possibly be? I was angry. I was sad. I was hurt. I felt betrayed. I felt used. She became that close to me that when we had a litter of pubs born, we named one, Misha. It was just heart-breaking. Absolutely heart-breaking. We were duped. Just like the rest of you.

Karen Schulman. That fact that she lied, made me cry. Misha played on sympathy. That’s how she became a wonderful storyteller. Sympathy. That’s how Misha was able to fool people. Sympathy.

Pat Cunnigham: I burst into tears. I felt so taken advantage of and lied to. The lies and bitterness came out. Some of my neighbours did give her quite large sums of money. We’re talking $25000, $30 000. To help her save the house. She’d go to the Rabbis and ask for donations from the temple. The entire community. The neighbours than knew her. Nobody talked to, that I know of. Everybody felt betrayed. Yeh…

Marie-Claire Mommer. There was a kind of anger that rose up in me, which never left me. The students that took part in the project. The day I entered the class there was a state of revolt. You have to imagine a pack in revolt. Rants. Tears. Cries. They were standing up on the benches. I was no longer in control. And I usually contained my students very well. I contacted Misha straight away. I wanted to be honest and authentic with her. But she said, ‘Don’t worry, it must be the doing of the publisher in America.’

Jane Daniels. And then came the next twist in the story. It couldn’t have got more bizarre. I said to myself I could never make up this plot, if I did, they would say, this is preposterous. This would not happen.

Marc Metdepinnigen (The Journalist) Every journalist dreams of a scoop.  The question for me was if the story was false, what is the real story? What I did was simply go through the Brussel’s phone book, where there are approximately 400 De Waels. So I started going through them. One after the other. And at the forty-third or forty-forth, I stumbled across a woman Emma De Wael. My meeting with Emma, Misha’s aunt was extraordinary.

Marc Metdepinnigen :She didn’t go in search of her parents?   

Emma De Wael: Good god, no. Her grandfather and grandmother

Marc Metdepinnigen. She told me her niece had always been delusional. That she would create imaginary worlds for herself.

Emma De Wael: I went and fetched her regularly with the number 56 tram to Anderlecht and brought her to Schaerbeek. In the evenings I took her back to Uncle Ernest.

Marc Metdepinnigen,  Emma De Wael told the truth about what happens during war. What happened to Robert, Misha Defonseca’s father.

Jean-Philippe Tondeur (Military Historian) Robert De Wael worked at Schaerbeek Town Hall. He was really very patriotic. And very engaged with his role as a reserve officer.  

Marc Metdepinnigen, I met Jean-Philippe Tondeur by chance. But he had a lot of documentation on Misha Defonseca’s father. So I went to consult Robert De Wael’s file.

On 10th May, 1940. Germans invade Belgium. They crush the Belgian army during an 18 day campaign. The king surrenders. And Belgium is occupied. Robert De Wael joins the Resistance. And begins to recruit resistance fighters. As a resistance fighter, Robert DeWael was involved in gathering weapons. Activating intelligence networks. And transmitting intelligence to the Belgian government which had gone to London.

Jean-Philippe Tondeur (Military Historian) Robert De Wael wasn’t very discrete about his activities for the resistance.

Emma De Wael, he had a loose tongue, because he was proud of what he was doing. Because I knew he had secret documents. He even showed them to us at home. My father told him to be careful. That he was becoming careless. He risked address.

Marc Metdepinnigen. He was denounced by a Nazi collaborator. And was quickly arrested. Robert DeWael, his wife and 41 resistance fighters were arrested. And are deported to Germany. And sent to Bruweiler prison in Cologne. The Cologne prison had a very harsh regime. He’s interrogated by the Gestapo.

Jean-Philippe Tondeur (Military Historian) Robert De Wael starts to scream. He cracks. He made a deal in the Cologne prison. This deal involved him handing over the names of his fellow resistance fighters in exchange for his wife being protected. And to once again see his daughter, Misha.

In 1942, after betraying his fellow officers, as the Germans demanded of him. Robert De Wael got one last opportunity to see his daughter. And that would be the end for Robert De Wael. He would later be deported. Robert and his wife Germaine would die in the camps.

Emma De Wael. We called her the traitor’s daughter. Because it was said that her father sided with the Germans.  

Jean-Philippe Tondeur (Military Historian) The Municipal would prescribe a plaque with the resistance fighters who died during the war. Robert De Wael, whose name was listed last, was later erased.

Marc Metdepinnigen, on 28th February 2008, when things became very clear, we published Robert De Wael’s whole story. The betrayal. The falseness of the story. Misha Defonseca’s account. And in the hours that followed a statement was issued. This was Misha Defonseca’s statement:

‘They called me the “Traitor’s daughter” because my father was suspected of having spoken under torture. This book, this story, is mine. It is not the actual reality, but it was my reality. My way of surviving. I ask forgiveness.  All I ever wanted was to exorcise my suffering.’

‘I felt so rejected. But I could not explain it to myself. Neither to my grandmother of my grandfather. I am not the girl I thought, but there are times I hesitate. I say to myself, “Did I or did I not, experience it?” I have to think.’

‘Particularly, with animals, I can still see myself, rolling on the ground with wolves.’

‘Have you seen my lovely picture with wolves? They will always be my wolves. I will be at their side. Even if I know the truth now. I am at their side. I got into a bubble. A world of my own. And this world of mine was filled with animals. Animals that defended me against humans.

Candy O’Terre. The Radio Host. Listening back to this intro the first words in this were ‘sometimes a story is so astonishing, it’s unbelievable. That’s very astonishing. Those were the first words. Then it turns out, it’s not true.’

I believed her. I didn’t see anything in those eyes that made me think she wasn’t telling me the truth. All I was doing was looking for more truth to confirm what I already believed. In hindsight, it’s chilling. But for me, at that moment, I was so respectful of someone’s experience of what we think of as citizens of the world will recognise was the darkest time of the history of the world. Far be it from me to question her.

Deborah Dwork (The Holocaust Historian) When it comes to questioning Holocaust survivors, one brings a great deal of diffidence to those claims. But the danger of believing everything puts history and the historical reality of genuine survivors at risk.

In December 1996, I got a letter and a manuscript from Jane Daniel. That manuscript was Misha (a memoir) during the Holocaust. I called Jane Daniel to explain why this narrative just didn’t work. I said to her, I would not publish this book. I have thought over the years why Jane Daniels decided to go forward with publication. She clearly hoped that the manuscript was true. But she clearly worried, it was not. I think it was greed that powered her, this narrative. For Misha and Jane Daniels. And then, as those sales’ figures rose, more and more people accepted the memoir as real. As true.

JD: I admit it. I created this monster. I created this monster with enormous sympathy as a character. Somebody that had suffered terribly. Somebody that deserved respect. In fact. Awe. And nobody wants to admit they were tricked. And I admit it, I was tricked by her. I believed her. Everybody was seduced. The American jurisprudence system. The judges. The juries. We were all seduced by this story.

Evelyne Haendel: It’s human to believe. Creditability is something else. It’s your need to question things or not that will help you discern what’s true and what’s not.  

Marie-Claire Mommer: I have enough distance to take a more analytical look at Misha’s character. Misha created a world for herself. A world of her own belief. Misha sought refuge in fantasy and with time she slowly becomes a character in her own story.

Deborah Dwork (The Holocaust Historian) I think we would like to believe that Misha Defonseca believed. That she was a survivor of the Holocaust. I think we would like to believe that we were not so naïve. That we believed it, because she believed it. And we would even like to believe that this narrative has a redemptive purpose. Because it made right the wrong of her childhood. I think it’s nonsense. There is no redemptive purpose. We were so naïve. It was all a fabrication.  

Evelyne Haendel: I feel about her today, (shrug) mixed emotions. I think she was a protagonist in the story but she was not alone. There were other people that helped to make this biography be a bestseller. Just talking about her right now, the search and the years that went by- some pity, ah, some repulsion, maybe it’s too hard a word, but I’m feeling some understanding. As a child it must have been very difficult for her after the war. The fact her father was called a traitor. A collaborator. She is both the victim and the villain. She’s both. She is both in the story.

The real Misha Defonseca still lives in Massachusetts with her husband and animals.

She chose not to be interviewed for this film.

The financial penalty against Jane Daniels was partially overturned.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire, BBC 4, BBC iPlayer, Writer and Director Celine Sciamma.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m0011f0c/portrait-of-a-lady-on-fire

French with English subtitles.

Writer and Director Celine Sciamma creates a beautiful vision.  I struggle to speak English, and growl at anybody that suggests I’m not working class. Yet the channels I watch most are BBC 4 and BBC 2. Academics in the late 1960s tried to cobble together a theory that showed an erosion of working-class values with a more affluent class of car workers in Luton. Embourgeoisement, aye, maybe, I like BBC 4 a tad too much. Just don’t call me a fucking Tory or think I’d voted for Brexit or that Etonian monstrosity, Boris Johnson.

https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2021/nov/14/where-have-all-the-translators-gone

The good thing about French cinema is they value the arts. We may have lost all our translators to the market (we don’t want to pay you the minimum, but if we can get away with paying less—we will) but on the evidence of this film, they have not.

Simple plot and complex characters gives a satisfying complexity.

In late 18th-century, Marianne (Noémie Merlant) remembers with the help of a painting in flashback— Portrait of a Lady on Fire—when she was commissioned by The Countess (Valeria Golino) to paint a portrait of her daughter Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) on a remote Brittany island.

Marianne must resort to subterfuge to finish her work and get paid by the Countess, who can make or break her. Héloïse, is an innocent sprung from a convent after her sister jumped off a cliff, but she’s aware enough to know that a painting of her is a commercial transaction, and her image will be appraised by a prospective suitor in Milan. She refused to pose for a previous male artist. Marianne pretends to be her companion, who accompanies her on walks.

Art for art sake. Love for fuck sake.

Storyville: Raising a School shooter, BBC 4, BBC iPlayer. Series editor Mandy Chang.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000xnzx/storyville-raising-a-school-shooter

Since 1970, 1677 school shootings in the US, ranging from pre-school to high schools. 528 deaths and 1626 injuries.

Sue Klebold (Colorado)

Tom, there’s a shooting going on at Columbine. They think that Dylan may be one of the shooters. I heard through the window them saying that there was 25 dead. And if Dylan was hurting people, in the way I thought he was, I prayed he would die (his mother).

It’s hard to talk about the funeral. I think in the room there were only 12 people. I wanted to have the body cremated before I left the premises because I didn’t want anyone to hurt or take him. I remember looking up at windows. Sure that the media were trying to snap pictures of Dylan in his casket or pictures of us (grieving).

He was just there in a cardboard box and they allowed each of us to have a few minutes with him. So my husband, my son and I, each had time with him, alone—to say goodbye.

I wanted to crawl in that casket to be beside him. To keep him warm. I said, ‘Darling, help me understand.’

And I didn’t realise that did become my life’s mission.

That’s what I’ve been seeking for 20 years understanding.

I prayed to him to understand so I could find some path to get through to cope with this.

And I can know what he never said to me.

I do belief that has happened over time.

Jeff Williams (Ohio)

[Jeff William’s partner (after the shooting)] I helped Jeffrey to get out of Ohio and move to San Diego.

Monday morning March 5th, I get up around 6 o’clock. Staff Sargent said there was a shooting at school. I called Andy and it went onto voicemail. Two girls from the apartment complex were there and I said ‘I’m so glad to see you,’ and asked, ‘Where’s Andy?’

They said, ‘he did it.’

It didn’t sink in. I went up to a Sheriff’s deputy. Tapped him on the back and said, ‘I think I’m the shooter’s father’.

On the radio it comes out that 2 people were killed and 13 injured.

On March 5th 2001, 15-year old Andy Williams opened fire with a .22 calibre revolver at Santana High School in California.

Andy was about 4-years old when I separated from his mum. Andy stayed with me. We did a lot of things together. He was like my best friend.

I go to the Public Defender’s Office and they bring Andy in. And we were both hurting. Both crying and I felt so bad. That’s the first time I can remember telling him I loved him, that day.

Once Andy got a bit older, we got separated a little bit. His grades started falling. I’d get occasional phone calls. Things like he was late for class. That kinda ended it. Then I found out Andy was getting home early and erasing them.

Andy had his two buddies he hung about with. One of them was in his late twenties and he’d provide them with booze and marijuana. He’d come home with bruising on his neck and he’d claim they were from skateboarding accidents. I told him over and over I didn’t like those kids. But he stayed with them no matter how badly he was treated by them.

These other two boys, they were supposed to have participated, but backed out. Andy was in that mind-set if I back out, I’ll get picked on even more. It determined him to go in and do the school shooting.

Round me he was pretty much light-hearted. Happy-going kid.

The bullying at school was terrible. The school was supposed to put out a report about it and racism, but when it was published, they blamed everything on Andy.  

He did something terrible. But he’s my only son. And I offered him unconditional love. Your job is to support your son, no matter what. I didn’t lose a son that day. I still get to talk to him, and hug  him. And get to laugh with him. I don’t know how I’d feel if I didn’t have that chance.

Andy Williams received a 50 year-to-life prison sentence. Reduced on appeal to 25 years minimum.

He is eligible for parole in 2025. 

Sue Klebold

Late in the afternoon, one of the police said yes he is (your son, Dylan, is dead). For months I was in denial. Not only that they killed those people. But they said awful, racist things. I shut that out of my mind. I said, Dylan would not say anything like that. They got so much wrong about the family. I settled into the belief system, they were wrong what Dylan did.

It took 6 months for the sheriff to make a report. He made a presentation. And for the first time, I got it. I saw it was planned. Video tapes they had made. I saw Dylan in a way I’d never seen him before. They were talking about what they were going to do. I saw him with weapons. It was horrifying to see him in that mode.

On 20th April 1999, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris opened fire at Columbine High School in Colorado.

It was one of the worst school shootings in US history.

I’d been grieving for this lost precious child. Everything died in my world. God died. My belief in truth. My belief in what our family was. My belief in who Dylan was. Everything was torn apart. The person I thought I was no longer existed. I thought I was a good mom. Who had raised responsible kids. Kind and loving and charitable.

Dylan 17 and Eric 18 went to Columbine with the intention of killing everyone and destroying the school. And if there’s any gratitude in this whole process is they failed to do that. But they killed 12 students and a teacher, before taking their own lives. They injured more than 20 other people. I’d say 24 people were injured and I try to use the broader definition (serious injures such as head wounds, spinal cord).

Everybody was suing everybody else. To hold them responsible. The governor went on national television to say it was the fault of the parents. It was open season on us. Everywhere I went, I was exposed to all the horrible things that people believed. Somehow we were lesser human beings. We were evil people. That did not know how to raise children. There was a world of people that hated us.

Connie Sanders reached out to me. Her father was killed by Dylan.

He went to the prom and had been accepted for University. But the police found in his writing: ‘I’m in agony and I want to die’. He had this hidden life, he wasn’t sharing with us.

While this was happening, I prayed that he would die. I’ve met many parents with incarcerated children and I think, they’re luck –  at least they can talk to their child.

I felt guilty for having lost a connection with Dylan, for not knowing that he was suffering.

-let us listen to our heart?

Our job as parents is not to make them feel better, but to make them feel…

To listen, and I didn’t do that.

I’ll never stop wishing, I could have those years (childhood years) again. Never.

If I saw Dylan, face to face, I’d ask him for forgiveness, for not being the mother he could come to, to talk to. For him to come to me and put his arms around me and say, ‘It’s OK’.

I can still see the helicopters. I can still see the ambulances. I tell you, that was the worst day of my life. I tell you it takes a long time to get over a shock like this.

School shootings going to happen again, but let’s do our best to stop them. He’s my son the school shooter and it’s going to stay that way.

Everywhere I went I didn’t know what to do, whether I should identify myself. For a while I went by a different name. I thought I should just leave. But I knew if I’d left I’d be some stranger somewhere and they’d be saying that the woman whose son killed all these people.

I decided to keep my name and stop hiding.

When you have periods of time, maybe thirty minutes when you feel almost normal. You might have days when you forget who you are. And what’s happened to you. Then you feel guilty.

Because as soon as you feel happy (alright) you begin to hate yourself.

How can I feel happy when this horrible thing has happened? How can I feel joy when I know that suffering is going on? I feel somehow it’s unjust for me to be happy.

In the beginning I was trying to understand, our community was trying to understand what happened. I understand now, it was never just one thing. For a variety of things going wrong and coming together. I’ll never understand how or why he did it. But there’s another issue that’s still relevant, how to dehumanise people.

I see it occurring all the time. I see it in politics. I hear on the news. I hear it when people reduce people and bring them down in size. Reducing them down to some aspect of themselves. Focussing anger, hatred and judgement on that. That frightens me because that’s how human beings are cruel to each other.

We’ve got to connect with each other. We’ve got to listen to each other, better.

Dylan Klebold’s ashes lie in an unmarked place.

Clarence Elliot (Virginia)

Nicholas was born in California. Everybody we knew was a mixed community. And we always kept our eyes out on each other’s kids. Our mother and I got divorced. He was snatched out of California. California to Virginia, it was a culture shock.

On 16th December 1988, Nicholas Elliot carried out an attack on The Atlantic Shore Christian School in Virginia. He shot one of his teachers.

He was armed with 3 firebombs, a semi-automatic pistol and 200 rounds of ammunition.

He killed one teacher and wounded another.   

I figured because of his age and the situation (bullying). He’d get 5 or 10 years. But the judge gave him 110 years plus 14.

I’m 79-years-old and he’s been incarcerated for 31 years.

Nicholas Elliot was sentence to life-plus-114-years in prison. He has been incarcerated since 1989, and has applied for parole six times. Unsuccessful.

Storyville, Whirlybird-Live Above LA, BBC 4, BBC iPlayer, director Mark Yoka.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000sc9j/storyville-whirlybird-live-above-la

Bob and Marika Tur captured the police chase on the Los Angeles freeways and the arrest of O.J. Simpson as he parked up his Bronco. Streamed live, it was watched by over 80 million- largely-America viewers. They were at the peak of their power. They witnessed the highs and lows of the eighties and nineties in The City of Angels.   

It had started off with Bob being just another stringers using police scanners and chasing police cars on the freeway to arrive at the crime scene. Being first was everything. Marika started out as being his front for the footage. She became his wife and junior partner. Every job was their last, and they needed to keep the foot down to make a living.  

Even when they had two children, a girl and a boy, the obsessive and consuming nature of their work meant that the children were drafted into their high-speed chases. Bob admitted to big dreams. He’d squirreled away $50 000 and went to look at helicopters. He didn’t have a license, but he learned and got credit for $500 000.

Up in the air, they could be first to accidents and murders and carnages such as a plane disintegrating and coming down on housing. Forest fires brought in the bucks. Floods were good too. Any kind of apocalypse could be monetised in the continuous news cycle.

Bob employed another pilot, Laurence Welk III. He had the right stuff. Business was on the up and up. Marika’s mum ran the office that sold the footage they created to media outlets.

Bob was hovering above the 1992 riots, after being filmed beating Rodney King police officers were cleared of assaulting him.. Shops were looted and set on fire.  Traffic was stopped and a man in a truck dragged out and his head kicked like a football. No police were seen, but Bob was. His footage resulted in convictions. He was sent hate mail and a bullet through the post. His children remembered him sleeping with a gun under his pillow, and telling them not to touch it.

But it was difficult to imagine Bob sleeping much. He said he went 90 straight days without a day off. He was an adrenalin junkie. The edge, the excitement, kept him going after bigger and better stories, but his life was imploding. He verbally abused his wife continually. They divorced in  2003.

Another narrative playing in Bob’s head was that he’d turn out like his old man that had beaten him as a child. His father had died at thirty-five with a heart attack. Bob also had a heart attack in his thirties. He admitted to hating his old man, but also of having turned into him. He, finally, took time off and attended The Burning Man festival. That was the place he first met trans-women.

Bob transitioned himself with an operation in Thailand in 2013. Bob became Zoey. He was no longer the big man. She hoped for a quieter life…outside the twenty-four-hour-news-cycle.      

All the President’s Men, BBC 4, BBC iPlayer, writer William Goldman and director Alan J. Paluka.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000rgnx/all-the-presidents-men

This is an old film, with impossibly young actors. But the same old story of corruption and cover-up, we’re more familiar with now. The 45th Un-United States President could say with some justification that he could ‘stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and not lose any votes’.  He was partly right, and always wrong. Let’s leave the twice impeached President sliding out of history and return to the Watergate Scandal.

It was a pretty simple story, as Sean Connery’s character growled in his Oscar winning performance for supporting actor in Brian de Palma’s Untouchablesfollow the money.

Two Watergate journalists Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) follow the money, Republican Party Contributions that lead them to the bungled burglary at Watergate, smear campaigns, the bugging of Democratic candidates with the connivance of police forces, the FBI and even the CIA. Everybody knows but nobody is telling, or they’ve been got at and threatened. Unwilling to talk.

Strictly, off the record Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook) is willing to meet Woodward and advise him whether he’s on the right track.

On the record, they’ve got to convince a grizzled Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards) at the Washington Post to print their story. He tells them the story of how he thought he had something on Director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover. And he’d ran with it as far as he could, and thought he was getting some place. Then the President of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson had phoned him up and told him he was making Hoover head of the FBI, for life. That was a fuck-you from the President. He didn’t want them fucking up and bringing down his paper.

We know what happened next with Tricky Dicky Nixon. We’re waiting to hear and see what happens with the moron’s moron. Follow the money. Amen.

Play for Today, The Black Stuff, BBC 1, BBC 4, BBC iPlayer, written by Alan Bleasdale and directed by Jim Goddard.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00tw1jz/play-for-today-series-10-the-black-stuff

Most people my age fondly remember Boys from The Black Stuff shown in the early 1980s. Yosser Hughes’s (Bernard Hill) catchphrase: ‘I can do that, gie’s a job!’ The Black Stuff was a prequel to Boys from The Black Stuff. It had the kind of audience figures—I’d guess around 15-20 million—that had cultural resonance in its depiction of working-class life in rundown Liverpool. Ironically, the repeat of The Black Stuff on BBC 4 was preceded by another programme, as it was in real life, Thatcher: A Very British Revolution.

It was the latter, rather than the former that was essential viewing. Alan Bleasdale’s drama hasn’t aged well. At just over an hour and a half it was overlong, and I thought it was shite.

Yosser Hughes was a bit-part player in The Boys From the Black Stuff series, yet he reached iconic status. Here we get the back story. He’s a misogynist wife beater, with a couple of kids, whose wife is cheating on him. His main gripe against Chrissie Todd (Michael Angelis) is that ‘he’s too nice’.   

Nice doesn’t get you anywhere in a Thatcherite world. Chrissie even admits to being nice and what’s worse, being happy. He shows he’s being nice by bringing a goose, ferret and some other animal in the work van with him as he drives to the tarring job they got lined up in some new housing estate in the Midlands. They’re staying in swanky digs and he claims nobody will feed the animals.  

Chrissie is too nice to be the gaffer. Gaffers are always bastards. Dixie Dean (Tom Georgeson) is fighting a losing battle with Yosser from the start. The men want more money. And even when Dixie gets it from his boss, McAuley, the men still aren’t happy. Yosser demands the men get a five pound a day rise, then when McAuley agrees says they should have asked for an extra tenner.

The only worker Dixie has power to bully is his son Kev (Gary Bleasdale—I guess a bit of nepotism here with the writer’s son getting a key role in the production).   They play this for laughs, and was about as funny as Benny Hill.

Kev, for example, ogles a female student in the petrol-station café who is holding a sign for Leeds. Loggo Logmond  (Alan Igbon) nicks his food from the counter but finds its display only, not edible, and then nicks food from his mates’ plates. Inevitably, been nice, Chrissie picks the female hitchhiker up and gives her a lift. Yosser gives her a hard time about being a student, and even worse, being female. Saudi Arabia’s got it about right he says were females are shackled to men’s needs. She gives as good as she gets with a feminist manifesto that includes details such as it’s not a good idea to threaten to rape female hitchhikers, while finding time to talk to shy Kev, and make him admit that he too had dreams—but hey, needs must, we live in the real world.  

Booking into the hotel, Dixie tells Kev to stop staring at the female customers and gives him money to go to the pictures. Make sure it’s not one of those Emmanuel type movies is his advice.

Chrissie’s worried about old George Malone (Peter Kerrigan) he’s heard him spewing up in the toilets. Old George is about my age now. George says he’s fine. A former Communist, Chrissie tell his fellow workers in a whisper with some admiration and a grudging respect. He needs to work and takes painkillers to sleep.

Kev, in Benny-Hill mode, finds out the hotel has a masseur that does extras. Naturally, there’s a bit of a mix-up.  £4 for a masseur, £15 for extras. I found the financial details more interesting than the smutty strand of the storyline, which makes me think, I might be turning into my da.

The major storyline also relies on stereotypes. Here you have a major turning point. Hardcore on a farm laid, but no tar to finish it. Yosser is willing to cut a deal and drag his mates along. But they two Irish ‘gypos’ type. Easy to stiff. Right from the off, the plot goes  as you’d expect. If you can’t see the ending then you too must have been on the hard stuff.

I’m sure Boys from the Blackstuff was good at the time. Maybe I should have left it there. You never step into the same stream twice argument. To think I used to watch Benny Hill—fuck off. To think unemployment was around the fifteen percent mark in the early eighties. It’s only five percent now. Dream on. Nobody’s laughing.