Sarajevo Film Festival 2024

The rise, fall, and rise of Russia’s free-spirited broadcaster

JOURNALISM / The story of Russia's last national independent TV news station.
Country: UK, Germany, Russia

TV Dozhd – which means ‘Rain’ in Russian – is a phenomenon in Putin’s Russia. The last surviving independent national TV news outfit (there is one hardy regional survivor too, TV2 in Tomsk, Siberia) remains on-air as a YouTube channel more than a decade after its launch, as a bright, optimistic – and somewhat naïve – project of a rich and spoiled 35-year-old woman, Natasha Sindeeva.

Neither TV Dozhd nor Natasha are the same characters today as back then – when on the back of a decade of a booming Russian economy and new hopes projected onto the then-President Dmitry Medvedev, optimism for the future was the big thing.

F@ck This Job, a film by Vera Krichevskaya
F@ck This Job, a film by Vera Krichevskaya

«Foreign agent»

Today, with Putin back in power possibly for life following controversial changes in 2020 to the country’s Constitution, numerous setbacks, and its recent official labeling as a «foreign agent,» TV Dozhd is older, wiser, and more sanguine about what the future holds in Russia. Sindeeva, who will be 65 when Putin’s current possible terms in office come to an end in 2036 (when, if he is still alive, he will have been in power longer than Stalin or Catherine the Great), is also older and wiser. She may still view life as a dance – continuing tango lessons even during her treatment last year for breast cancer in Germany – but her commitment to her dream TV station through thick and thin has cost her her marriage to wealthy banker Sasha Vinokurov and taken the innocent and naivety out of her once rose-tinted view of the world.

For those of us who have lived and worked in Russia through the Dozhd TV years (and long before, too), this is a film that bears witness to our own lives. Others, with a more distant relationship with Russia, may find Vera Krichevskaya’s thorough and detailed chronology of Dozhd TV harder to follow or understand. But for those with any interest in Russia beyond the most superficial, this is an important, valuable and timely documentary jointly produced with Mike Lerner, whose credits include Hell and Back Again, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, and The Russian Woodpecker.

Krichevskaya was a founding producer with Dozhd but left within a year after Sindeeva’s ill-judged decision to first ditch a satirical sketch suggesting Putin would soon replace Medvedev as president (which is of course exactly what happened in 2011 after Medvedev had kept the Kremlin throne warm for a year while Putin served as Prime Minister) and then invite Medvedev to visit the station, where he was feted like some mega pop star. But she never lost interest in the station – which initially had an audience in the millions and was broadcast via the biggest commercial station, NTV+, in the country.

For those of us who have lived and worked in Russia through the Dozhd TV years (and long before, too), this is a film that bears witness to our own lives.

Rise, fall, rise

As an insider, Krichevskaya has access to a remarkably rich archive, charting the rise and fall – and rise again – of a station where the staff sees themselves more as a family than colleagues.

Initially pitched as «the optimistic station,» Dozhd was always inclusive, with a team where more than half its members were gay, making it an outlier in Russia, where anti-LGBT laws in 2013 made homosexuals in Russia «second class citizens» as acclaimed writer and activist Masha Gessen puts it.

That inclusivity and devotion to telling the truth attracted some of Russia’s brightest young broadcasters and technical staff. But it also put the station on a collision course with the Kremlin, where Putin’s determination to stamp out independent television news had begun as early his first few months in office, back in 2000.

Just how different TV Dozhd was to other Russian TV news outlets soon became evident. In January 2011, a suicide bomber killed 37 people and injured another 173 at Moscow’s Domodedovo international airport. The station had CC TV footage from the moment the blast was triggered on air soon after the blast and cut direct to live coverage while federal channels continued to run soaps and feel-good movies.

From assigning reporters as polling station observers to get an exclusive on ballot box stuffing for pro-Kremlin parties during the presidential election of 2011 to brave coverage of street protests and the Bolotnaya Square «riot» of May 2012 on the eve of Putin’s inauguration for a third term, Dozhd TV reporters were always in the thick of it.

But it was the station’s honest coverage of Ukraine’s revolution of 2014 when violent protests on Kiev’s Maiden (Independence) Square drove the country’s pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych from office and a broadcast where studio guests, adopting a question once posed by a famous Russian writer, asked where Leningrad should have been surrendered to the Germans during the wartime siege to save the lives of as many as 1.5 million people, that gave the authorities the excuse they were looking for. Claiming moral outrage, NTV+ pulled the plug on Dozhd, causing its audience to nosedive from 12 million to just 60,000 on cable and costing it most of its advertisers.

It was a watershed moment, and the station, and Natasha, grew up that day. Staff volunteered to take a 30% pay cut, and the station went online only and was put behind a paywall. But worse was to come. As it continued its courageous coverage of what by mid-2014 had become a civil war in Ukraine’s eastern secessionist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, Dozhd was kicked out of its rented studios at Moscow’s old Red October chocolate factory, now a trendy entertainment and eateries hub. No one would rent space to them, and the station ended up in the cramped quarters of a downtown Moscow flat owned by Natasha.

State harassment continued – locks were sealed shut with glues that defied locksmiths for hours, staff became paranoid.

Eventually, another trendy old warehouse venue offered studio space, and in February 2015, Dozhd moved in. A week or so later, charismatic opposition politician – and possibly the last man who could really have taken on Putin and won – Boris Nemtsov was gunned down on a bridge within view of the Kremlin.

Again, Dozhd was alone in switching to live coverage of a tragic event that barely merited a mention on federal channels.

State harassment continued – locks were sealed shut with glues that defied locksmiths for hours, staff became paranoid.

The station soldiered on; «family» feuds became fractious. The paywall model never worked: «In a country of 140 million, only 60,000 were willing to pay for independent news,» Krichevskaya, who also narrates the film, states.

More harassment followed as a fresh wave of protests broke across the country in 2019. Sindeeva was hauled in for questioning by prosecutors over its coverage of a new thorn in Putin’s side, anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny.

Finally, Dozhd found a way to be solvent – via a free-to-view YouTube channel where 23 million individual clicks afford it the means to pay its bills. But that association with a foreign funder means it must now display an online declaration that it is a «foreign agent,» a term in Russia that is freighted with Stalinist weight. But Dozhd survives and Sindeeva too.

F@ck This Job, a film by Vera Krichevskaya
F@ck This Job, a film by Vera Krichevskaya

A country and its people

This is a compelling and emotional film for those of us who care about Russia and its people.

First shown in April at Moscow’s Artdocfest, F@ck this Job (the title comes from an unguarded comment by a correspondent caught on tape during a firefight in Kiev in 2014) gets its International Premiere this week at the Warsaw International Film Festival with further screenings due in Amsterdam at IDFA, and a US premiere at DOC NYC, next month.

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Nick Holdsworth
Nick Holdsworth
Our regular critic. Journalist, writer, author. Works mostly from Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.

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