Review: Stuff’s web series Emma is gentle, uplifting and heartbreakingly complex

Stuff Circuit has delivered another moving documentary series with Emma, the story of one young woman’s search for meaning, connection and closure.

There is a scene in Stuff’s new web series Emma where award-winning journalist Paula Penfold embraces Emma and gently kisses the top of her head. It’s so tender and I was so grateful when I saw it because I wanted to mother Emma myself.

It also reinforces the fact that the only people who could have made this beautiful documentary is Paula Penfold and the Stuff Circuit crew.

Emma focuses on Emma Barrett (formerly Yekaterina Viktorovna Finenko), who has had an incredibly difficult life. Soon after she was born in a broken-down apartment block in a small Russian town, she was placed into an orphanage. She was adopted by a couple in New Zealand but her pain didn’t end there, and she found peace only later in life with the help of her loving adoptive father Terry. Emma works in Stuff’s Auckland office, which is how the Stuff Circuit team got to know her, and eventually follow her journey back to Russia.

The series is gentle, uplifting, hopeful and kind – it feels like a new kind of journalism in 2020, but it’s not. Penfold and the Stuff Circuit team, which includes reporter Penfold, producer Louisa Cleave, cameraman Phil Johnson and creative director Toby Longbottom, have been producing complex documentaries with care and compassion for some time now, and Emma is a continuation of important storytelling by one of our country’s best specialist investigative journalism units.

Emma follows on from the incredible Big Decision on abortion law reform, Life + Limb, which exposed New Zealand’s deadly legacy in Afghanistan, and False Profit, which famously captured Billy Te Kahika’s temper tantrum.

At a time when people feel let down by journalists, overwhelmed by clickbait, or just brainwashed into thinking anything they disagree with is fake news, Stuff Circuit’s web documentary series is crucial. They’re a reminder of the importance of good storytelling. They tell us that in order to share someone’s private and painful story, you must have a deep care and respect for your subject. It requires skill and experience, and it takes a certain type of person to do this work.

Every moment of Emma shows this to be true.

Emma and Paula Penfold in front of the apartment building in Russia where Emma was born.

Emma is a celebration of people and the way we care for each other. It’s deeply personal and only minutes into the series you’ll feel protective of Emma. It’s testament to the skill of Penfold and the team that this documentary never feels exploitative despite how heartbreakingly complex it is.

Emma and her dad, Terry (Photo: Supplied)

Watching the series, you feel immediately bonded with Emma. She’s a delightful person – you can see why she’s so well liked by her colleagues at Stuff. Often when watching documentaries like this one, I worry about the support provided to the main players. I worry about after care. I worry about how they will cope with attention and whether they’ll be dropped once their story has been told.

I did not have these worries about Emma. The scenes where she is cared for by the Stuff team are so natural and frequent that you feel assured she is safe through this difficult process. This allows you to feel even closer to her and her incredible story.

Emma’s story is as stunning as it is sad, the bleak but beautiful Russian landscapes showcased by drone in the series reflecting the internal struggles of everyone involved. I felt carried away and completely captivated by the scenes – the jaunty music and gentle humour ensuring you’re never weighed down by sadness.

Emma and her adopted mum

You never lose hope watching Emma and in 2020, that in itself is a gift. The series takes you on a long journey in a short time and while you will likely shed tears as I did, it’s not a story of devastation.

Emma is a story of light in the darkness. It’s a story of resilience and love. Even characters who aren’t sympathetic are treated with a level of empathy, because all cues are taken from Emma herself.

Watching this series in the dark shadow of the US election made me think about how much we need this kind of truth in our media. We need storytelling that teaches us something about ourselves as much as it teaches us about others. More than ever, we need to walk alongside others on their journeys to try to understand what life is like beyond our bubbles.

Emma and Paula Penfold and the Stuff Circuit team have given us quite a gift with this series. A reminder that even in the hardest times, we still grow toward the light.

Emma ​is released today (November 15, 2020) and available at ​stuff.co.nz/emma​.




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