Film and the struggle for LGBT rights

Ahead of the series of events about LGBT lives in Russia and Lithuania, Marc David Jacobs of Edinburgh Film Guild New Cinema, discusses the way in which Russian and Lithuanian film-makers have explored the experiences and challenges LGBT communities in Russia and Lithuania. 


This month, in Edinburgh and Glasgow, there is to be a series entitled LGBT Lives in Russia and Lithuania: Queer Cinema and Associated Events.  For this, Jenny Carr and Dr Francesca Stella have organised between them a series of fascinating discussions and talks which will – it is to be expected – engage with the politics of the situation, from both Russian and LGBT perspectives.  These will take place alongside a selection of film screenings, the curation of which have been mainly my own responsibility.  These films screenings – included within the larger series under the rubric of Edinburgh Film Guild New Cinema 4: Notes from Underground – began with an instinctual idea of organising screenings of Russian queer cinema.  The rationale seemed obvious: in a country where both gay activism and anti-gay fervour were developing at a tremendous pace, the effect that this would presumably be having on those filmmakers who chose to present LGBT culture in their work seemed worthy of investigation.

The resulting programme would then take the form of an all-encompassing overview of Russian queer cinema within the past few years – or, at least, whatever parts of it we could access, given our limited reach, the language barrier and the likelihood that there would be a number of filmmakers who might be working for their ‘bottom drawer’, as was common for dissident writers in a previous Russian generation.  The goal would be to include whatever work might to be found, and thereby create as comprehensive – and, therefore, arguably objective – as possible a view of the state of this cinema now.

But, of course, films and film screenings can always have an effect.  In Scotland, a marriage will soon take place which would have been illegal a week ago.  The relationship it legally sanctifies was similarly illegal a generation ago as, until November 1980, ‘homosexual acts’ were criminal offences in Scotland.  The closest cinematic corollary of this in the UK may be the film Victim, one of the first British features (alongside A Taste of Honey) to feature a sympathetic homosexual character.  In November 1980, the film was still rated X, as it had been since its release, effectively meaning that its subject matter was considered as dangerous to minors as ‘homosexual propaganda’ is in Russia today.  Even in 2003, the film was still certified as a 15, meaning that no one below that age could view it legally.  The year after that, it was recertified 12A and, after another year, PG – for ‘mild language and sex references’.

Same film – same country – different context.  Victim was, itself, partly instrumental in influencing the laws which decriminalised homosexuality in England and Wales.  Were one to have attempted to organise, in the wake of its 1961 release, a screening series of examples of British queer cinema of the time, I expect the few resulting amateur films would have borne interesting comparisons to their Russian counterparts which we will be screening soon in Edinburgh and Glasgow.  And it would not be difficult to imagine that, had there been such an attempt, works like Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane, Terence Davies’s Children (both 1976) or Ron Peck’s Nighthawks (1978) may have emerged even sooner, given such visible precedents.

The searches which resulted from enquiries into what LGBT filmmakers in Russia were producing now revealed some incredible talents, all of whom approach their subject matter with remarkable individuality.  Coincidentally, the newest works all come from documentary filmmakers.  Fictional works which identified themselves as queer cinema seem to have dried up altogether, although a fascinating selection of short films from 2011 and 2012 was made known to us through Russia’s only LGBT film festival, Bok-o-Bok (‘Side by Side’), which had shown five of them in a programme included in their 2012 programme, entitled The Beginning.  And yet, from the filmmakers included in this whom I was able to contact, there seemed so far little further output.  Only Seva Galkin, a photographer by profession, had followed his first foray into filmmaking (2011’s Three Times About It) with a further three-minute LGBT-themed ‘music video’ called An Ordinary Story (although another forthcoming film was also mentioned).

The hope of queer cinema amongst those currently working in Russia at present seemed instead to come from two prolific documentarists, Kseniia Khrabrykh and Svetlana Sigalaeva, both of whom had returned to LGBT subject matter in their work a number of times over the past four years, although each in very different ways.  Sigalaeva, a student at VGIK (the prestigious Russian film school which produced Andrei Tarkovsky and queer Soviet filmmaker Sergei Paradjanov, amongst others) had begun with 2 in 1 (2010), about a gay police officer struggling between his lifestyle and his loyalties to his work, which increasingly included the disruption of gay pride parades.  Since this, her most overt work on the subject, she has produced two more films which began to more subtly incorporate the themes of LGBT identity in Russia into broader contexts.  In Not With Us (2012), for instance, the subject is the sense of family and community that develops in a Russian women’s prison, where lesbian relationships are touched upon, but are still only a part of the complex set of ties which bind the inmates together.

The most recent film on the subject, Kardo (2013), she calls a ‘near-LGBT’ film; its lead character is a fictionalised version of the actor, Kardo Mirza, who portrays him – which leads to a delightful blurring of documentary and fiction throughout the film.  Kardo/’Kardo’ spends most of his time on camera with nails painted jet black and a blonde wig atop his completely bald head – yet, despite this, the film never identifies him as either gay or queer, and there are only a few tangential references to Russia’s views on homosexuality scattered throughout the film’s half-hour.  But, instead of developing this forcibly, Kardo instead focusses on Kardo and those he encounters as he develops a mad scheme to save Russians in Sweden from the oncoming apocalypse by trying to convince them to return to Russia – the only country which he is convinced will survive it.  Combining biting satire with charming visual interplay and editing, it is easily her most assured work to date, and bodes well for whatever films Sigalaeva produces in years to come.

Kseniia Khrabrykh, by contrast, seems to have emerged from mainly professional capacities as cinematographer and editor on fashion videos or working for theatre companies before making a move into her own documentary films and interactive art.  In 2011 and 2012, she created films about QueerFest, the largest gay pride festival in Russia – which has since become endangered by the new ‘homosexual propaganda’ law.  These were, in effect, simple documents of the festivals’ events in capsule form, but they allowed Khrabrykh to make connections and shoot a great deal of footage for two personal projects.  One of these, Wings in Sleeves, is to be presented in Edinburgh in a work-in-progress form on 16th February – a version of the film which, I’ve been told, will be completed on the 10th.  To judge from some of the raw footage which I have been privileged to watch, it will be a work of incredible power.  One scene in particular has haunted me since my first viewing: that of activists working for grassroots LGBT support group Vkhod (‘Coming Out’) watching in disbelief as debates in the Russian parliament lead to the passing of the ‘propaganda’ legislation.

Alongside Wings in Sleeves is Khrabrykh’s other feature LGBT project, I Am 20 Years Old, intended to be a documentary about three generations of Russian lesbians, utilising archival footage from the 1970s and 1990s as well as pieces from her own present-day filming.  Like Wings in Sleeves, it seems intended as an intensely personal work – indeed, all of Khrabrykh’s films (and even her fashion promos or her smattering of abstract pieces) seem in many ways like the most personal ones I’ve seen across the entire range of our programme, their technical perfectionism balanced against a tangible and at times even forceful identification with whatever she films.  The effect which she hopes for from this is clear: in a promotional video intended to raise funding for I Am 20 Years Old, she states ‘I can use my camera and skills to inspire my community – LGBT and queer people – to keep on resisting.’  Khrabrykh – the word means ‘bravery’ or ‘courage’ in Russian – certainly lives up to her name.

Additionally, Yulia Matsiy, a Russian currently studying filmmaking in Milan, spent the summer of 2013 filming a feature documentary on what she calls the ‘double minority’ of LGBT Christians in Russia.  Based mainly around a series of longform interviews, including with some of Russia’s most well-known LGBT activists, the film also incorporates devastating footage videoed by organised gangs of Russian homophobes, who dedicate themselves to repeatedly outing, shaming and physically assaulting those they’ve targeted and entrapped.  More valuably, though, it also presents what may well be the most extensive look to date into the lives and testimonies of ordinary members of any part of the country’s queer community, let alone specifically Christians.

The search for queer Russian filmmakers also threw up a fascinating parallel figure in the form of 23-year-old Romas Zabarauskas.  I admit that I was entirely ignorant of the LGBT situation in Lithuania until, through Romas’s work, I discovered that a ‘Protection of Minors’ law – effectively a template for the one passed last year in Russia which has grabbed so many headlines worldwide – had been passed in Lithuania in 2009.  Romas’s reaction was to produce, with crowdsourced funding, a short film called Porno Melodrama (2011) – a blatantly confrontational piece (one of its production companies was even dubbed ‘Protection of Minors’) which he described as a ‘test’ of the new Lithuanian legislation.  Managing not only to avoid arrest, but even achieving a Lithuanian cinematic release for the film, he has since produced his first feature, We Will Riot (2013), which – as the title suggests – is another overtly political piece designed to confront what the film’s promotional materials call the Lithuanian ‘system’ that threatens not only the LGBT community but also any number of other underground figures (in this case, specifically the ‘beatmaker’ scene of electronic nightclub musicians).

This film bears comparison to a curious Russian feature which was also released last year, but is not included in our screenings.  Winter Journey is a low-budget film, produced independently but designed for general release, about a tormented classical singer who falls in love with a homophobic criminal.  The film’s single gay kiss gained it notoriety as it was screened at festivals in Russia and elsewhere (including at the London Russian Film Festival in November), and yet both the filmmakers and actors seemed to be at pains throughout repeated interviews to point out that Winter Journey was not a ‘gay film’ – that the main character’s sexual orientation was intended solely as a storytelling mechanism with which to highlight his ‘isolation’ from mainstream society.  But, even if these protestations may have been designed as a sort of means of avoiding falling foul of the propaganda law (which one suspects, but has no evidence to prove, they were), between this disavowal of the film’s queer identity and its hardly flattering portrayals of either of its male protagonists, it seems hardly likely that Winter Journey will stand any chance of turning out to be Russia’s Victim.

But, as mentioned, it is not the point of these screenings to effect change with a film like Victim – nor, in some ways, even to examine the situation of LGBT rights in Russia or Lithuania at present at all.  This is best left to those who will participate in our discussion events, where Russian LGBT activists – including the editors of Russia’s oldest lesbian journal, Ostrov, and a volunteer from the Bok-o-Bok International LGBT Film Festival – will meet British academics and politicians to discuss these matters, informed by their various experiences and authority.  Nor will the films we screen attempt to present a comprehensive overview of the state of LGBT rights in Russia or Lithuania.  Rather, they will present those individual aspects of the situation which their filmmakers are familiar with.

Positioning these screenings with a cinematic focus as the one of primacy seems, in some ways, the most useful stance for this screening programme to adopt.  Using culture as a tool is political enough of an act in itself – and, naturally, if the films and filmmakers that we mean to focus on are stridently political, then we cannot strip them of that quality.  But the import of these films is precisely what should be open to audiences to discuss, debate and work out for themselves.  Given the wide range of Russian and Lithuanian queer cinema at hand, dialogue seems perhaps the thing most worth encouraging – between films and audiences alike – and whatever results of it could well prove the most important aspect of the programme as a whole.


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