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‘We weren't ready for anything’ This Russian producer grants wishes for terminally ill patients on network TV. We asked him about breaking cultural taboos and racing death to bring joy to his stars.

Source: Meduza

Last winter, the Russian television channel Pyatnitsa! (Friday!) aired the first four episodes of a new documentary series called Wish to the Sky. The episodes followed the show’s creators as they made dreams come true for terminally ill patients: Some patients took their first trip abroad to see the ocean, others went parachuting or mountain climbing, and still others met their celebrity idols or reconciled their relationships with their parents. Wish to the Sky not only helps patients cope with extreme hardship; the show is an attempt to create a new kind of language for talking about death in Russia. By the time it aired, two of the patients the program featured had passed away. Darya Nevkritaya spoke with Semyon Zakruzhny, a host and producer for Wish to the Sky, about how the project has changed both its heroes and its creators.

For those who haven’t seen the show, what can you tell them about it?

It’s a project about how terminally ill patients set out on a journey to fulfill their biggest dreams. Everything on the show is genuine; real people, dreams, fulfillments, and it’s as up close and personal as possible. It’s unique in the sense that something like this has never been done before anywhere in the world, though the idea has been around.

Who originally thought of the idea?

The story was proposed by [Pyatnitsa! CEO] Nikolai Borisovich Kartozia. I’d already been working with him for a while by then, so he called me, told me about the project, and I took it up straight away because it seemed so fascinating. I had thought of something similar a few years back — I didn’t really have the audacity to propose it, but Kartozia, he had this audacity. It’s likely no one except for him could have pulled it off.

Deciding to do something original is always intimidating. Which obstacles were you least prepared for?

We weren’t ready for anything. We were anticipating everything, but we weren’t at all prepared. If we’re talking about intimidation, it really was scary. The theme of the show is a tough one, and it needs to be talked about properly. On the one hand, we didn’t want to just keep talking about it like everyone else does, but on the other hand, we didn’t want to end up in the middle of some scandal and have Meduza publish an explainer like “Everyone thinks they know the right way to act around sick children, but Pyatnitsa! did it all wrong. Here’s the right way.”

In addition, we were afraid of worsening our participants’ conditions. Aside from the fact that we were worried about their health, I was also afraid of giving someone three days of this dream life, and then afterwards just putting them back in this horrible situation. We didn’t know what to do about it, and we weren’t sure if it was right, so we decided to ask some psychologists. One of them said: “You’re deciding whether to make someone’s dream come true or not. You can’t be seriously having doubts.” So we came to the conclusion that if you can do something great for another person, and you genuinely want to, then why can’t you? If someone is going to be living through hell, better to at least let them have three days of something awesome. 

The trailer for Wish to the Sky

And how did you prepare for filming as an individual?

I didn’t really do anything specific to prepare. I’ve worked as a journalist before, and I often came across people who were living through difficult situations. For me, to see someone living through misery wasn’t the scariest thing. And actually, all that journalistic experience creates a kind of barrier where you stop being so empathetic. And for me, I had to get rid of that barrier.

Our biggest goal for the show, and I think we delivered on it, was to start a dialogue on this topic in a completely new way. For example, there’s NTV, where they say, “Okay, here’s this beautiful little girl. Just a few years ago she could comb her hair, but now she doesn’t have any hair at all! Give money now!” We didn’t want to shout, but rather show that these people still dream, they have desires, and it’s not right to treat or talk about them in that way. And I think the show achieved that. All it took was to show love and affection to each of our participants, to make little jokes about their situation, talk to them like a friend, and not look at them with tears in your eyes, which actually just makes their situation even worse.

This is something the stars of the show often talk about: Vlada talked about how it was still really difficult for her when her parents felt sorry for her; Dima said that he felt embarrassed by his illness, and when he met new people, he tried not to bring it up. After the filming, what impressions were you left with?

It was even before the show. When we first came up with the idea, straight off we called Katya Shergova and Marina Obukhova at “Podari Zhizn” (“Give Life”). They immediately welcomed our idea and supported us. We talked about how we didn’t want to do a classic show like [the popular talk show] Pust’ Govoryat (Let Them Talk) — we really wanted to do something cool, and we totally understood that it probably wouldn’t be a big hit. Straight away, Podari Zhizn recommended a girl named Darina. Such a remarkable person. She was from Crimea and had cancer, but she wrote poetry, took photos, she set up her own photography exhibition, and had some other projects as well. We recorded a few interviews with her, started to write the screenplay, and, well, we finished it. Everything was great, but then, just two days into the filming she passed away. It was a huge shock for us, and we didn’t know if we could continue the project or not. I didn’t expect it to happen so suddenly. We had just started to get to know each other, everyone liked her, and then, suddenly, everything was over.

And so, to get back to the impressions I was left with, after the first few interviews with Darina, Marina Obukhova called me and said “Darina loves talking so much. Of course, at first, I was worried, I had my doubts, but it was just so amazing to see you speak with her as friends that I don’t worry anymore.”

After Darina, we were recommended to work with a girl named Yulia, and we immediately fell in love with her. Yulia and her mother lived full-time in the Dmitry Rogachev Children’s Hospital. We filmed the first interview, which was only 30 minutes, just using a phone. I remember when I watched it, and generally, to be honest, I’m never fazed or upset by tragic situations, but I just broke down in tears. I sent the video to Kartozia and wrote that it was just indescribable, and we immediately started writing the screenplay for Yulia. Three months before the filming, Yulia was going through some deep depression, and even the doctor asked the Podari Zhizn foundation to put Yulia on the show so that she could get through it. She even mentioned in the first interview how sad and lonely she was. And the first thing that started to get her out of this depression was just an interview filmed from a phone! She talked about this with the staff members of the foundation.

We had another star named Vlada. I was really worried that she didn’t like the show because, though she was never shy about giving interviews on camera, she always seemed very uneasy. I was generally always concerned that one of the participants wouldn’t like something, but afterwards she wrote to me “I’m crying, it’s just so amazing!”

I have some really sweet voice messages from Yulia Yemelyanova that she sent us in a burst of excitement after she watched her episode.

A trailer for the third episode of Wish to the Sky featuring Vlada Nyukhtik.

How did you choose the participants of the show?

We knew that it wouldn’t be fair to choose someone unless they were really in a serious condition. There are different forms and stages of cancer, and there are millions of people all over the world who have been diagnosed. Finding a patient with cancer isn’t that difficult, but we thought that if this is going to be a show about traveling and achieving dreams, we can’t give this experience to someone unless they are actually in a life-threatening situation. Like Yulia, for example — it was a complete defining moment of her life. So we chose people who had the most severe diagnoses and were in the most difficult circumstances. We specifically looked for these aspects.

This is one of my favorite aspects of the show. Dima, for example, the star of the second episode, wasn’t really the character type for this sort of show. I didn’t agree with everything that he said, of course, but I liked his bravery to think the way he did. It was great that he was happy to openly talk about it, though he held some brash opinions. A part of our story is also about how anyone can get sick, not only nice and sweet people.

After that, we shot the first few interviews with our star Yulia and threw together the screenplay. Everything was going all right; we had a director, we had an executive producer, and we had our other producer. So, according to the screenplay, we were supposed to meet Yulia at the hospital and then fly to Georgia since that was her biggest dream. We had tickets, permission from the doctor… and then, just four days before filming, the doctors told us there wasn’t going to be any Georgia trip. If her health would allow it, of course, they would let us go, but they said it surely wasn’t going to be in four days, which was the day we had bought the tickets for because Yulia’s condition was getting worse.

Everything that the viewer sees on the show happens like it did in real life. At one point during the show, Yulia’s condition started to get worse again, and we didn’t know how much longer it would go on. For us, the health of the patient was always paramount, and so we cancelled all the filming. We just sat in a circle and waited for an answer from the doctors. At five or six in the evening, the doctors said that Yulia might be able to film the next day, but only in the hospital. We had planned to go to a photo shoot and eat out at a rooftop restaurant. So, in one night, we had to change everything so that it could take place at the hospital.

Technically, it wasn’t that difficult to do, but we knew that Yulia hadn’t left the hospital for a few months, and she basically hadn’t seen Moscow at all. Taking her to a classy restaurant in the city and setting up a table in the hospital are two completely different things. So in addition to a dinner, we decided it would be great to invite a musician that Yulia likes to come and perform, but we only had 24 hours! To us, it seemed pretty far-fetched, but we had Yulia’s playlist, there were 38 different artists on it. We decided to start from the bottom; Valeriy Meladze, Dima Bilan, Noize MC… the only ones we didn’t call were One Republic and Sia. No one flat-out turned us down, everyone wanted to help out, but they all said something like “Look, I’m in Tel-Aviv right now, if it were in a few days, I’d say I’ll buy a ticket right now, fly there and play.”

The first episode of Wish to the Sky, featuring Yulia Yemelyanova.

No one at all turned you down?

Of course, there were some people who turned us down, but for ideological reasons. They were all ready to help, but no would show up on set. Some of them told us, “I’ll do it, but you can’t film it.” We didn’t know how to convince one of them. I think if they could have seen the show, they would have agreed. It’s this type of thing we were worried about from the beginning — all of a sudden something going wrong.

So, we had called a bunch of artists, and all of them were willing to do it, but no one could do it the next day. All that was left on the playlist was Basta, Max Korzh, and the band called Pizza. We decided to call Pizza, and Sergey Prikazchikov, the founder, was the only person who agreed to come the next day at the agreed-upon time. And that same band had actually played the graduation ceremony at Yulia’s school. So that’s how everything came together. All the preparation ended up looking like some sort of game with the universe, something from the movies, where at first it was deliberately trying to ruin and overwhelm you, and then, like in the movies, it decides to save you. It was crazy. This kind of thing just never happens! It never happens. I didn’t think it was possible at all.

What other problems came up during filming?

There’s an interesting story about the last day of shooting for the first episode. We were waiting up until the very last second to hear from the doctor about our Georgia trip, and we were all set to go. We had everything booked. At noon, we had an appointment with Yulia’s doctor, the wonderful Aleksey Pshonkin, and I didn’t know what he was going to say. In the end, he didn’t let us go. For the next hour, we just didn’t know what to do. Nikita Garmel, our executive producer, told us, “Guys, we don’t have a choice: We have five hours to put something together.”

And you decided to bring Georgia to the rooftop of the hospital?

Yeah, we had to bring Georgia to Yulia, and we only had five hours. It was incredible because the entire group — the lead editor Olya Vosnyuk, the producer Polina Milushkova, me, Nikita, the cameramen, and the sound guys, everyone started picking up their phones and making it happen. I was looking for some horses, someone was looking for khachapuri, someone else was calling a Georgian folk ensemble with 20 people in it, and everybody came! Nikita and I went to Leroy Merlin to buy some grass and other stuff, and we literally ran back because we only had five hours to put together the final scene. The administrators even went to look for fireworks. It was just incredibly amazing.

When it was almost time to start shooting, we were standing outside the hospital smoking, and some of the people started to show up. A crowd of Georgians came, a woman pulled up in a truck with a horse trailer behind it, and then some random freak came along, and we started to think, “Are they really here for us?” and then the guy said, “I’ve got a flag for you!” We all started to bring up the sand and the grass, and then it hit us — we knew it was all gonna work out.

It was the kind of ending, of course, where you wanted to cry. When you’re driving home in the evening, completely wiped out, but there’s the feeling that you just did something really significant.

Most of the comments I read on the Internet were along the lines of “it was difficult to hold back the tears.” To be honest, I had a hard time holding back my own tears, too. How was it for you? Did you often feel moved during filming?

When we watched the first episode on air, we realized that during one of the scenes, the camera was shaking. So we called our wonderful cameraman, Andrey Koval, and we asked him, “Andrey, what was going on?” He said, “Man, I don’t want to talk about it.” It turns out that even the camera operators, when they were filming, shed some tears, and that made their hands shake.

We all had tears in our eyes after the filming of the first episode, when it finally hit us that we did the show, that our idea was working.

Was there any type of viewer feedback that was particularly valuable?

All of our stars had already been living with their illnesses for so long that they simply forgot why they need all this stuff: I.V. drips, these difficult, complicated procedures that make them feel sick afterward. What’s it all for? They had already forgotten all the great emotions and feelings of being happy. This show was for those who had forgotten. It was to remind them that there’s something to aim for, that there is still time to live.

A lot of people sent and continue to send me messages, all saying basically the same thing: They themselves are sick, or they have a friend or family member who is sick. Many of them tell me “Now I know what to do, how to act around them, and that sometimes to make a dream come true, all you need to do is call an elevator and go upstairs.” It was like Yulia’s story. She lived in a hospital, and she wanted to see the sun rise from somewhere up high, and all this time it was possible to take the elevator to the roof and fulfill her own dream. A lot of people who are sick wrote to me saying that, even after watching just the first episode, they knew what they needed to do. And people who have relatives who are ill told me that now they know how they should talk with them, and how to support them.

And how should they? If a family member or friend ends up in a tragic situation like this?

People in these situations are just so tired of suffering — most of them, though, of course, every person is unique. I definitely realized that my own suffering, this basic inert suffering you get in response, as in “Oh, cancer, you must be really suffering!” — it just makes that person feel worse. People are embarrassed to say that they’re sick because they’re tired of all the suffering. Of course, for someone who is really sick, you should be empathetic, you should be respectful, but you shouldn’t overwhelm them with grief. They shouldn’t have to feel worse because of what you’re afraid of, or because you feel bad. That’s the absolute worst feeling — when they can tell somebody’s pitying them. Maybe for some people, it’s the other way around, and they want to be pity, but usually, that feeling passes.

They want some fresh air. They just want to talk about it all. We didn’t have a problem talking about their illnesses. It’s not as if they didn’t want to, or they were afraid to. They were ready and willing to talk about it, but they didn’t want to make it the centerpiece, which it already was for them. They aren’t just sick people. First and foremost, they’re people, individuals. They aren’t diseases who have people, they’re people who have diseases. They’re people who want to talk with you, who want to be open and frank with you, who want your support, not your pity. They want to be able to have normal, day-to-day, ordinary conversations. Sometimes, they become ashamed of their illness because they feel like they’re causing other people to suffer. They’re embarrassed that they have this difficult, frightening condition.

That’s all pretty obvious and understandable, but it’s a thousand times more difficult when your family member falls ill because people who are close have stronger emotions and more context. Part of the show is also about that. About how cancer becomes a lens that we use to see the past, the future, and the present. The misery of a relative hits you a lot harder, and you’ve got to have courage in order to stay together and just to support them and help them.

The final episode of the Wish to the Sky project, featuring Yulia Gladkikh.

Is it that all related to the fact that cancer is a kind of taboo in our society, maybe a type of cancerphobia?

Of course. The fact that a person has to be unhappy when they’re sick is a consequence of stereotypes, clichés, and the taboos surrounding this topic. Cancer isn’t a type of obligation to act a certain way; it’s just a fact. It could be useful if everyone studied some stoicism and ancient Greek philosophy to understand the idea that humans are mortal, often unexpectedly and suddenly mortal. Sooner or later, all lives come to an end, but it’s best to use the time that you have to be happy. When someone is going through such a difficult time, they just want a breath of air, happiness, joy, and support.

Everyone dies sooner or later, and cancer is one of the most prevalent causes of death, so it’s strange not to talk about it and make it a sort of taboo instead. Firstly, that’s because anyone can unexpectedly be diagnosed with cancer, and it might be better to consider that fact in advance. Secondly, the more society makes the topic of cancer a taboo because they just don’t want to talk about it, the more difficult it becomes for the folks on the show and thousands of others who suddenly find themselves inside this stigma when they encounter cancer. Because of all this, they find themselves completely misunderstood.

They didn’t do anything wrong, but for some reason people are afraid of them. They want to evict them from apartments so that they don’t catch the sickness. Okay, maybe that’s a bad example because it’s more about a lack of education, and idiocy, though that’s also a problem in Russia. However, if we talk about this unreasonable fear, just having a normal conversation on this topic will help them get over it. Talking about death shouldn’t be taboo. We’ve got to talk about it. That was the primary goal of Wish to the Sky, to have this conversation with the youth who were watching shows like [the travel shows] Heads or Tails and The World Inside Out or [the reality show] Tomboys. We wanted to try and talk with them in the same style, and with the same tone, but about these really serious issues, which any of them could encounter.

Since we’re on the subject of death — two of the four stars of the show have passed away. I know that you became friends while you were filming, and you stayed in touch with them afterwards. How did you take the news of their passing?

When Vlada passed away at the beginning, and then Yulia, it was scary, and kind of eerie. At one moment, Vlada’s condition was really bad, and it just continued to get worse. Her sister was keeping everyone up to date on what was happening through Instagram. Reading about it was really difficult, and it was a really horrible time. I was on a different project, but with the same team, and then the news came that Vlada was gone. It was a shock, the kind you can’t really be ready for. It wasn’t only a shock because this amazing person had just passed away, but also a shock from the injustice of it all.

With Yulia, it was a really painful story. I got a call from Podari Zhizn, and they said that Yulia wasn’t doing well, but she still had one more dream. She wanted her own dog, a little Pomeranian. It was already clear at that time that Yulia’s prognosis wasn’t good. The foundation spoke with Yulia’s mom, and she agreed that she would keep the dog afterwards. Podari Zhizn asked me to fly to Sterlitmak, since Yulia was transferred home from the hospital in Moscow, and they wanted me to bring her the dog. I said that I was ready to go this week. At the same time, I wrote to Dana Sokolova and asked her to do a group video chat with Yulia. Shortly afterward, Marina from the foundation wrote to me again and said, “Listen, Yulia’s gotten a lot worse. In the next few days, it won’t work out to go see her. Let’s do it later.” We rearranged everything, we got on the conference call, but then, just a few days later, Yulia passed away. We didn’t manage to make it out there.

Semyon Katz for Meduza

Do you know if there will be a second season of the show?

Kartozia really wants to do it. We’re waiting for the right time. Overall, we want to do it.

So what needs to happen?

Well, the thing is that right now, were shooting another project, and we have some other things planned. I’d better not answer this question because I’m just the guy who makes the project happen, and the decisions about whether it happens are made by other people. But they say that they want to, that everyone liked the show, and that it’s a really important topic. But what’s next isn’t up to me.

We talked a lot about what this show did for the stars, but what did it give you and the film crew? What’s the main thing you took away from this experience?

Fearlessness, confidence, and just to constantly have that reminder of the purpose of humanity. When you commit yourself to something, you become a little more free from stereotypes and irrational fears. You understand that having audacity can lead to some really great things. I see audacity as a word for this particular kind of youthful confidence that everything is possible. It’s a reminder that in different ways, in different spheres, and from different platforms, it’s possible to do really cool, useful things. If you have the chance to do something great, you have to do it. And it’s also a reminder of why I love my job.

Interview by Darya Nevkrytaya

Translation by Spencer Woods