Can TV really change the world? Just ask ‘To Russia With Love’

Laura Michalchyshyn

Laura Michalchyshyn.

By Laura Michalchyshyn, President Sundance Productions

It’s something no one can really plan for when making a documentary: The moment when a great character – a great person – comes to you, the filmmakers.

That’s what happened to us earlier this year, while in the midst of filming To Russia With Love, an EPIX original documentary exploring human rights through the lens of a handful of LGBT athletes competing at the Sochi Olympics against the backdrop of Russia’s anti-LGBT law. During the course of the film we had been following a number of athletes, including icons like Billie Jean King, Greg Louganis, Mark Tewksbury, Jason Collins, Martina Navratilova and Brian Burke – all people using their voices to raise awareness and help be part of positive change in the world.

Then we met Vlad, a young gay student whose name may not be famous but whose experiences sadly typified the life of homosexuals in Russia today. Born and raised in Sochi, when we met him Vlad was being harassed, taunted, and beaten by classmates and bullied for his sexuality. We had heard about and seen beatings of LGBT Russian youth on YouTube in videos uploaded by perpetrators and bullies. Witnessing and filming Vlad’s stories – stories in which he suffered immensely – was an honor and responsibility we took seriously.

Vlad became part of our story. He had to.

Though this is the third or fourth “golden age” of television, the stories that are most impactful in this exciting and robust time come from real life – headlines, true stories and personal tales of how the world affects us.

It’s common parlance to hear that television can change the world. That’s truer than ever in this golden age of high-impact storytelling, where some of the biggest and most important players in entertainment are creating programming for a number of platforms. Today, creators have tremendous impact. But instead of considering this a cultural phenomenon, I propose that this is a personal movement.

Though this is the third or fourth “golden age” of television, the stories that are most impactful in this exciting and robust time come from real life – headlines, true stories and personal tales of how the world affects us. In the crowded media landscape, personal stories are what move, shake, entertain, impassion, anger and engage audiences and filmmakers alike. The way those filmmakers reflect human experience in challenging times makes for some of the most compelling and thought-provoking stories of all, on all platforms.

Audiences want to be emotionally connected and to feel that stakes are high and characters are real and relatable. Truth can be stranger and more powerful than fiction. This is a big year for documentaries with films like Citizenfour, Life Itself, Stray Dog, The Overnighters, Whitey: The United States of America v. James J. Bulger and Iris all being released. These films transport us into the world of big ideas led by singularly fierce, focused and passionate people who have strong convictions and live true to their beliefs. Whether we agree with them or not, their stories are compelling, provocative and move us.

Johnny Weir

Johnny Weir

In Russia, which was executive produced with Johnny Weir, narrated by Jane Lynch, directed by Noam Gonick, and produced by Howard Gertler and Elle Flanders we were able to tell the story of young, promising athletes who rightly believe that regardless of their sexuality they should be treated the same as every other athlete. These athletes deal with the discrimination and outward actions that make who they are illegal in Russia during an event that is one of the biggest world sports gatherings celebrating humanity and bringing nations together.

This is the power of documentary storytelling today – something we were able to witness change one young man’s life even before the movie was complete. Vlad connected with Billie Jean King during a Sochi press conference, and she asked him, “What can I do?” He told her, “I think I have to leave Russia.” They stayed in touch – as did we – and she was instrumental (along with the U.S. State Department and the Arcus Foundation) in bringing Vlad to New York. He has since decided to stay to attend school in the U.S. and seek asylum here.

The power of what has happened for Vlad as he seeks out a safer and more comfortable life is profound. It happened because of a film that set out to uncover some truths, ask many questions and seek some answers. When television inspires change and heroic or even simple action, the world is a better place.

To Russia With Love airs on EPIX. You can next see it Wednesday, Nov. 5 at 10 p.m. ET.

Laura Michalchyshyn is a producer and founder, with Robert Redford, of Sundance Productions.

The Cynsiders column is a platform for industry leaders to reach out to colleagues, followers, and the public at large. In their own words, columnists address breaking news, issues of the day, and the larger changes going on in the ever-evolving world of television, video and digital. Cynsiders columns live on Cynopsis’ main page and are promoted across all daily newsletters. We welcome readers’ comments, queries, and column ideas at RDawn (@) cynopsis.com

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