A strain of melancholy Slavic clarinet creeps into the soundtrack of this otherwise breathless documentary about Dozhd TV, the hip young gunslingers of Russian independent broadcasting. It’s as if it’s reminding us that this tale – hopeful foray into western-style liberalism is crushed by autocratic forces – has played out many times in Russian history before. Except that Dozhd (“rain”), founded in 2010 and still in business, hasn’t quite been crushed yet. With its live broadcasts of protests Putin would rather the public didn’t see, it shows remarkable persistence in the face of harassment and intimidation in this closely embedded account by one of its former producers, Vera Krichevskaya.
Dozhd’s status as thorn in the side of the Kremlin is all the stranger given its founder, Natasha Sindeeva, was a Moscow noughties good-time girl with no interest in politics. But the channel – with its gay-friendly work culture, funky branding and cheeky satire – quickly picked up a following. Dmitry Medvedev, when he was president, appears to have been a fan. But covering the protests that followed Putin’s third-term election in 2012, and its continued links to opposition politics, put the channel on the official shitlist: removal from lucrative national cable packages, harassment of its staff, eviction, legal prosecution and being labelled as “foreign agents” have all been used to keep Dozhd marginal.
Thankfully no one here gets a polonium sandwich, but Dozhd’s survival still seems like a decade-long experiment in testing the limits of its slogan: the Optimism Channel. Surviving on YouTube and behind a paywall, its value looks a given to anyone who values free speech. But Sindeeva’s banker husband Sasha starts to waver: “Go to war and die heroically? Or live a long life and die from some common sickness? Both scenarios are possible, for a person and for a TV station.”
Sindeeva ends up foiling the sickness – a breast cancer diagnosis – and going down the heroic path. Narrating the film with occasional gonzo outbursts (“We were so fucking stupid”), Krichevskaya is perhaps over-infatuated with her subject, but then Sindeeva seems like quite a character. The kind to go topless and let her radiotherapy sessions be filmed, all the better to make her point and intercut it with another malignancy: Putin amending the constitution so he can stay in power until 2036.