A new six-part PBS series that premieres Wednesday is not a response to current events. “The Dictator’s Playbook” is a history series that tells the life stories of six bad and brutal men: North Korea’s Kim Il Sung, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Italy’s Benito Mussolini, Panama’s Manuel Noriega, Spain’s Francisco Franco and Uganda’s Idi Amin.
But it does seem especially timely. And it goes beyond biography to explore the lingering, crippling effects dictatorship can have on a nation and its people. It highlights the tactics dictators use to gain and hold power: creating a cult of personality, controlling the secret police, using violence, creating a culture of fear, controlling the elites, using propaganda.
“The Dictator’s Playbook” was produced by TPT and Toronto-based Cream Productions. We spoke with Michael Rosenfeld, TPT’s vice president for national programming and the person who pitched the idea to PBS. The former president of National Geographic Television, Rosenfeld has won or led teams that have won the Peabody Award and 40 news and documentary Emmys.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Michael Rosenfeld: It was hard! Unfortunately, there are so many to choose from. The 20th century was a time when there were dictators all across the planet. So we started with geography. We wanted the series to be geographically diverse, because we wanted people to understand this was not just going on in Germany and Italy but was a worldwide phenomenon. That’s one way we narrowed it down.
As always with television, you’re looking for interesting and dramatic stories and interesting characters. The six we chose are all compelling personalities. People know a bit about them, but we discovered a lot more that will surprise people.
MP: It’s helpful that you establish a vocabulary for what dictators do and what various terms mean, like cult of personality and propaganda.
MR: Different [tactics] come up in different stories, but there is some overlap. Both Mussolini and Kim Il Sung had a cult of personality. Both Saddam Hussein and Idi Amin really took advantage of their secret police. These guys influenced each other and learned from each other. That’s something we learned as we were making the series.
MP: What was TPT’s role in creating this series?
MR: We’re the producing station. In the PBS system, a number of stations are known as producing stations. They initiate productions and produce them for the national system. This ensures there’s content coming from all over the country. It’s not just a few big stations on the east and west coasts. It’s much more geographically diverse than that. TPT has a fairly long history of producing national content. My job is to continue and try to grow that.
MP: In ‘The Dictator’s Playbook,’ are you drawing parallels between today and the 20th century?
MR: I wouldn’t say that. But we are bringing the story up to date where it’s appropriate. In the first episode, we start with the death of Kim Il Sung, but we cover the fact that the dictatorship in North Korea has continued now to the third generation. The current ruler is the grandson of the original dictator. In the Francisco Franco episode, we tell the story of how they are still finding mass graves [in Spain] and exhuming many, many bodies of Franco’s victims. We show the impact of these dictatorships. It doesn’t go away when the dictator goes away. There are ripples.
MP: Are these cautionary tales?
MR: This is historical journalism. We’re not trying to teach anyone a lesson. We’re letting viewers reach their own conclusions. But clearly, there are lessons here. One is that dictatorships are very difficult places to live in. There’s a huge amount of suffering involved. Another thing that’s clear from watching the series is the importance of democratic institutions. A lot of the dictatorships we talk about crop up in places that don’t have a long tradition of democracy. Or they have a weak democracy. For example, North Korea. There isn’t a democratic tradition there, or democratic institutions that could buffer against dictatorship. In Italy, when Mussolini took power, there was a new but very fragile democracy. To me, one of the big takeaways is democratic institutions are really important. They’re a bulwark for freedom.
MP: Was there anything especially surprising that you learned along the way?
MR: I came to this series with some misconceptions. As one example, we’ve all been taught that Mussolini learned from Hitler and was sort of Hitler’s sidekick. That Hitler was the teacher and Mussolini was the student. In fact, it was the other way around. Hitler was learning from and imitating Mussolini.
Another [surprise] was Idi Amin. [The film] ‘The Last King of Scotland’ portrays him as a kind of crazy person. What you don’t see is how wily and strategic he was.
Lifting the curtain on these historical figures was surprising to me, and getting to know them a lot better. These are men we’ve all heard of, and we know something about them, but what we know is just a small piece.
MP: What else would you like people to know about “The Dictator’s Playbook”?
MR: What a human story this is. Each film has an inherently fascinating central character. And then there’s a whole country of people whose lives are being transformed by this person. Some of the most powerful voices are those of witnesses who experienced these realities. It brings home the importance of human rights.
“The Dictator’s Playbook” airs Wednesday nights at 9 p.m. on PBS. The six-week series starts Jan. 9 and ends Feb. 13. FMI.
Tonight (Tuesday, Jan. 8) at Vieux Carré: Two x Deux. The birth of a wide-open weekly series inspired by the idea that two is good: two voices, two instruments, two personalities in musical conversation. Curated by Molly Maher, the singer, songwriter, guitarist, Disbelievers bandleader and Dusty Heart member, each night will feature two duets by local luminaries and an opening set by Maher and one or more musicians. Tonight’s pairs are bassist Cody McKinney and drummer Richard Medek, drummer JT Bates and pianist Bryan Nichols. On some nights, who knows, there might be a fourth set. Future dates include Mike Lewis, Diane Miller and Pieta Brown. 7-10 p.m. $8 at the door unless otherwise noted. FMI.
Wednesday at the Amsterdam: Liquid Music: Jennifer Koh: “Limitless” with Tyshawn Sorey and Vijay Iyer. Searching for a pithy phrase to describe this event, we keep returning to “a gathering of Olympians.” This is a serious threesome and one that won’t often pass our way. Violinist Koh is a prodigy and virtuoso violinist who’s at home in classical repertory and contemporary music. Percussionist/composer Sorey and pianist/composer Iyer are both MacArthur fellows whose vast sonic territories include jazz. Along with “Limitless,” commissioned by Koh and first performed at National Sawdust in Brooklyn, we’ll hear improvisations and explorations using Iyer’s “The Diamond” and Sorey’s “In Memoriam: Muhal Richard Abrams.” 7:30 p.m. FMI and tickets ($30/25; free for children 6-17 and students).
Friday at the Lab Theater: Behind the Curtain with LOFTrecital. The Minnesota Opera’s 2018-19 season will continue with Nino Rota’s “The Italian Straw Hat,” which opens Saturday, Jan. 26. Get an insider’s look at the production with musicologist Kay Lipton, followed by music by Puccini, Rota and Verdi. If the name Nino Rota rings a bell, he’s the Oscar-winning composer who scored “The Godfather” and Fellini’s films. LOFTrecital is a Twin Cities-based collective of classical musicians whose events are part concert, part house party and increasingly popular. 7 p.m. FMI and tickets ($25); 612-333-6669.
Tickets are still available (but likely won’t be for long) to Walker Dialogue: Luca Guadagnino with Scott Foundas on Friday, Feb. 1. Guadagnino is the acclaimed director of “Call Me by Your Name,” a 2018 Best Picture Oscar nominee, and “Suspiria.” Foundas is a film acquisitions development executive at Amazon Studios. Their chat will be part of the Walker’s “Luca Guadagnino: Love and Horror” event, which includes screenings of four of his films starting Jan. 31. FMI and tickets.