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Juris Podnieks (1950-1992)


There are so many stories to tell about Latvian born film maker Juris Podnieks.


  • How and why I first met Juris, then unknown in the UK, after I saw his extraordinary film Is It Easy To be Young? in Moscow in 1987

  • How I commissioned Hello, do you hear us? a one hour documentary with a budget of £80k and watched it grow over five years into a series of five films and a budget of £800k

  • How John Willis stepped up and broadcast four of them on Channel 4

  • How I went with Juris to Chernobyl

  • How his cameraman died while shooting a riot in Vilnus

  • How Juris picked the lock of a park gate during the Edinburgh Festival

  • How his films won the Prix Italia and every other award for which it was entered

  • How he drowned in a Latvian lake while scuba diving

  • How his funeral filled Riga’s Cathedral


But the story I want to tell now took place in Yalta, Crimea.


A couple of days earlier I’d received a panic phone call from Stepan Pojenian, the Deputy Director (de facto the Moscow boss) of the Soviet British Creative Association (SBCA), which we had spend two years setting up and which was heralded on 10 Downing Street letterhead by Margaret Thatcher. Stepan told me that:


  • Six months earlier Juris Podniecs had been granted permission to film in Armenia. When this had been agreed everything was ‘normal’.

  • However this weekend huge demonstrations, almost certainly leading to serious riots, were planned in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia

  • Juris had pulled forward his filming schedule and would be flying there, with his crew, at the end of the week.

  • This was out of the question, but Juris wouldn’t listen to reason.

  • Juris would be allowed to get on the plane in St Petersburg but he’d be arrested at Yerevan Airport in Armenia.

  • He’d be flown back to Riga where he would be stripped of his press credentials and never allowed to make another film.

  • My visa would be cancelled and I’d be frog marched out of the Soviet Union and never allowed to return.

  • The SBCA, which was now facilitating a hugely prestigious, and expensive BBC Natural History series, would be closed down.

  • I was the only person Juris would listen to.

  • I had to stop him.


I called Juris and suggested that as his flight plans were known he should change them. How about flying via Yalta, which from Moscow’s point of view was off the beaten track? I could set up a meeting there which, an idea was forming in the back of my mind, should resolve things. Juris, relieved I had no intention of persuading him to call off the shoot, agreed. I then called Armen Medvedev, the Chairman of Goskino (Ministry of State Cinematography) a Juris supporter and co chair with me of the SBAC. 

Armen agreed Alexandr Galutvin, his deputy, should meet with Juris and me at Yalta. “Good luck.”


We met at Yalta’s historic Oreanda Hotel. This meeting wasn’t going challenge the 1945 Roosevelt, Stalin, Churchill Yalta Conference for historic significance, but it was important to us.


To cut a good story short we all agreed any 16mm film footage would one day be of historic importance. So it had to be shot and then put into the archives. To ensure there was no ‘mishandling’ the negative would be developed in Goskino’s laboratory. And we agreed this archive footage would only be used in the documentary series Juris was filming for Central Television with Goskino’s agreement. 


Juris agreed to this because much of the shoot would be on ‘home’ video cameras, which he’d recently smuggled in after a visit to the UK. I was also confident that as the SBCA was a Goskino joint venture the chances of the 16mm footage being released to Central were high.


At the end of the day Goskino sent a print of the rushes to the Kremlin and I was told that Gorbachev himself gave the all clear.

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