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Stuff Circuit's Special Project 'Emma' Has Landed


Emma Barrett (formerly Yekaterina Viktorovna Finenko) was born in a broken-down apartment block in a small Russian town. She arrived early, weighing less than a loaf of bread. Nobody knew it then, but she had fetal alcohol syndrome, and was placed into a Russian orphanage shortly after birth. She would later also be diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder, because of having no healthy emotional bond with a caregiver.

At three, Emma was adopted by a Kiwi couple and given a new life in New Zealand. But the reality of raising a Russian orphan was much harder than the dream, and everything fell apart. Emma ended up in foster care, and eventually back with her adoptive father.

‘Emma’ is the latest project from the award-winning Stuff Circuit team, which took Emma to Russia in search of her birth family. And what they uncovered in Russia was… complicated.

Stuff Circuit journalist Paula Penfold says this was an extra special assignment. “Sometimes the best stories are right in front of you - we work with Emma in the Stuff Auckland office.”

Emma is employed under the Creative Spirit programme, which gives people with intellectual disabilities regular jobs.

“Emma has overcome more in her life than one person should ever have to bear, but she has enormous resilience and determination,” says Penfold.

“It was an eye-opener to see where Emma came from, and witness what she’s been able to achieve in her life despite everything. We’re extremely proud of the documentary - we’ve never had the opportunity to do anything like this.”

The heartfelt and, at times, heart-wrenching look at Emma’s life is set against the backdrop of a two-sided Russia: the opulence of Moscow and the bleak reality of poor, rural communities - Russia itself becomes a character of stark contrasts in the documentary.

Stuff Circuit director/editor Toby Longbottom says ‘Emma’ is quite different in direction and tone from the journalism the team usually produces. “Emma herself is a bold, brave and beautifully quirky character, and we wanted to mimic all of that visually in the way we told her story. We were fortunate to make it to Russia and back just before Covid-19 closed international borders, it’s been three years in the making and we’re thrilled it’s finally here.”

The documentary follows several intense local and international investigative assignments from the four-person Stuff Circuit team, including Life + Limb which exposed New Zealand’s deadly legacy in Afghanistan, and False Profit which revealed worrying characteristics belying the political aspirations of Billy Te Kahika.

‘Emma’ is available to view at stuff.co.nz/emma.

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