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DISPATCH FROM ST. PETERSBURG | Russia’s First LGBT Film Festival Fights On Despite Government and Me

DISPATCH FROM ST. PETERSBURG | Russia's First LGBT Film Festival Fights On Despite Government and Me

Facing local hostility, overt moves by the government to halt their event, and a persistent shroud of secrecy for gays and lesbians in their country, organizers of Russia’s first queer film festival fought to stage their event this weekend even as they were ridiculed in the media. Just back from St. Petersburg, outgoing NewFest artistic director and Sundance fest doc programming associate Basil Tsiokos offers a diary of his experience as a juror at the first Side By Side fest.

In early January of this year, I was contacted by the organizers of Side By Side for advice on a lesbian and gay film festival they were planning in St. Petersburg, the first of its kind in Russia. Irina Sergeeva and Manny de Guerre conceived of Side By Side as a cultural LGBT event, an alternative to the secretive and underground gay bar scene in the conservative country, and as a means to spread understanding between the LGBT and mainstream communities.

While homosexuality was decriminalized in 1993 and removed from the registry of mental disorders in 1999, prejudice and open intolerance are a legacy from the former Soviet Union, making open, public expressions of LGBT identity and community extremely difficult. This was evidenced in recent years in Moscow, when attempts to organize a gay pride parade were met with physical aggression and violence, and came to the forefront again this past week, when St. Petersburg authorities did everything in their power to attempt to suppress Side By Side, which was officially scheduled to take place October 2 – 5.

Side By Side organizers put the bulk of the festival’s programming and logistics together outside of Russia, organizing an impressive program featuring narratives, documentaries, and shorts that had not been seen in Russia other than as pirated copies or illegal downloads. Planned films screened to acclaim at international festivals like Cannes, Berlin, Toronto, Sundance, and Tribeca, such as Lucia Puenzo‘s “XXY,” Zero Chou‘s “Spider Lilies,” Eytan Fox‘s “The Bubble,” Celine Sciamma‘s “Water Lilies,” Daniel Karslake‘s “For the Bible Tells Me So,” Angelina Maccarone‘s “Unveiled,” and Cynthia Wade‘s Oscar-winning short “Freeheld.”

While Side By Side was able to secure these and other internationally heralded films, they faced a daunting struggle to find a screening venue in St. Petersberg. State funded cinemas refused to participate, but a local privately-owned cinema complex, PIK, agreed to serve as the host for the event. However, after advance tickets went on sale, and two weeks before Side By Side’s opening, PIK backed out of their agreement, indicating that the theaters would be unavailable due to “technical reasons” related to remodeling. Walking by PIK last week, the theater was clearly in operation, however. In a local newspaper, PIK representatives admitted that they cancelled their contract with Side By Side due to pressure from city officials.

Such pressure has been felt by organizers since they first announced the festival about a year ago. National and local press was generally hostile, denouncing the event and the LGBT community as “perverts” and “sinners,” and even intentionally publishing misinformation to suggest that the event would not happen. Sergeeva and De Guerre pushed on, backing off press efforts until recent weeks, focusing instead on practical logistical concerns – spreading awareness of the event to the LGBT community, and securing new screening venues. Although they wanted the festival to take place in publicly accessible movie theaters, organizers had no choice but to change plans and move screenings to two popular nightclubs.

Publicizing this venue shift, and the festival in general, in a local radio interview on September 30 drew angry responses from listeners, and may have been the impetus for inspections of both clubs by fire department officials on the eve of Side By Side’s opening night. Citing fire code violations, officers from the Ministry of Emergency Situations closed both venues on October 2 and took club owners to court – an uncharacteristically efficient process that takes 10-14 days under normal circumstances, suspiciously accomplished in less than 24 hours.

Reeling from these latest events, organizers attempted to notify ticket holders, and planned a press conference in front of the Opening Night venue. Attending the event as a juror, I was made aware of some of the difficulties Side By Side had been facing. Festival supporters had picked me up from the airport on October 1, tellingly removing their Side By Side identification as soon as we made contact, and expressing anxiety about whether anything else would go wrong. So on October 2, having been told about the closing of the new venues, I was on my way to join the press conference to show my support together with John Cameron Mitchell, who was in attendance to present “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” as the festival’s opener.

An image from the foiled first press conference in St Petersburg. Photo credit: Lida Mikhailova

Then, we were called and told to stay away. The private security firm that Side By Side employed to protect attendees (itself difficult to arrange, as city officials threatened to revoke the licenses of many security companies Side By Side contacted) were monitoring the area and warned organizers that police officers as well as rapid response teams in light body armor were in the vicinity ready to arrest participants for illegal public assembly. Thwarted again, the press conference was postponed until a secure, private location could be found. In a press release announcing these events, Mitchell noted that “it’s incredible the lengths those in power will go to restrict individual thought, association, and exchange of ideas.”

Against this uncertain backdrop, we did what the Russians do, and went to have some vodka. Curious to see what LGBT life was like in St Petersburg, our American-based Russian friend Alex quickly researched online what gay nightlife might have to offer. Among a long list of clubs, we should not
have been surprised to learn that the vast majority had been closed by the city over the past few years. Of the few that did survive, some reportedly were difficult to gain entry to, practicing what was euphemistically called, a la passport control, “face control,” – ie, selective admission based on
attractiveness, fashion, etc. Opting instead for a nightcap at a cafe, Alex was momentarily taken aback to see a member of the Russian special police forces, OMON, hanging out near the front. Recognizing the Cyrillic spelling “OMOH” on his uniform in the mirror, I noted that police here were literally anti-HOMO. Russia: What a country!

The next day, Side By Side organized a lunch meeting to bring foreign guests up to speed on all the recent developments. In attendance beyond Mitchell, Alex, and myself were my fellow juror, Klaus Mabel Aschenneller from the Berlin Film Festival‘s Teddy Foundation, Munich-based Australian filmmaker Rodney Sewell, director of the short “41 Seconds,” and Russian-born, American-based Alexey Bulokhov from SoulForce, representing “For the Bible Tells Me So.” We were pleased to hear that organizers were committed to salvaging the event, even though its public component had to be scrapped. Instead, Sergeeva and De Guerre were looking for private residences or larger spaces in which some films could be shown on DVD. Given the problems that had plagued the festival to date, it was disappointing but understandable that they were planning on spreading the word about these substitute venues on a need to know basis only to local LGBT community members, lest authorities once again try to shut them down.

Following the lunch, we all took a circuitous walk to the new private location for the rescheduled press conference – a combination Kindergarten and adult education training center, underlining the difficulties in organizing safe spaces for the LGBT community to gather. Entering the space, things took a turn towards the absurd when we were required to wear blue baggies on our shoes to protect the carpeting in the bare meeting room. A small group of sympathetic print and TV journalists and concerned members of the LGBT community greeted us, and we were additionally joined on the panel by representatives from two additional films, the Kazakhstanian “By the Letters” and the Russian “The Alien Body.” With attendees and our various translators buzzing, we addressed our impressions of the unfortunate situation. Sewell remarked, “I can’t understand how city authorities would act in such a manner, especially with the St. Petersburg Dialogue going on right now in the city with Germany – it’s a terrible signal to send out to the global community,” referencing the intergovernmental forum between Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev covering everything from politics to religion to culture.

Aschenneller likened the environment for LGBT concerns in Russia to that found in former Soviet Bloc countries like Poland, noting that public resistance there to gay pride parades eventually gave way after perseverance by organizers. Mitchell pointedly noted that the subterfuge employed by city officials in the closing of the venues spoke to an untenable position for the authorities: “People only do things in secret that they’re ashamed of.” Locals, initially rattled and expressing pessimism about the future of LGBT visibility in St Petersburg, were heartened by these sentiments. One panelist, a transgendered subject of the documentary “The Alien Body,” closed out the press conference by stating, simply, “I am now optimistic as well. Love will win out in the end!”

Sergeeva and De Guerre said that the presence and support of non-Russian guests drew more press attention than they themselves would have been able to generate, demonstrating the important role the international community can play in taking Russian officials to task for their oppressive actions. For my part, I was happy to give a local TV station an extended interview, then bemusedly found myself followed around by cameras to the curious looks of locals at a concert by Balkan composer Goran Bregovic, famed for his scores for Emir Kusturica‘s films. Following the concert, Side By Side supporters excitedly reported receiving text messages from the organizers with information that screenings would take place the next two days at secret locations, and instructions to forward only to trusted friends. To celebrate, we, of course, went to drink some vodka.

While the ultimate form of the festival this year was not able to embrace a more public aspect, organizers were happy to be able to showcase at least some of the films to audiences, even in a private, secret location. Only an hour before screenings commenced on Saturday, De Guerre summed up her feelings: “Although I was initially disappointed that the festival had to be changed due to these actions, I’m feeling pretty positive now that we will get these films shown the next two days and hopefully over the next couple of months in conjunction with educational or cultural institutions.” De Guerre and Sergeeva noted that their immediate plan was to screen a number of the documentaries and shorts on Saturday, selected features on Sunday, including “Hedwig,” “Water Lilies,” and “XXY,” and to announce the winners of a photo contest that was being held in conjunction with the festival. Although I left St. Petersburg on Saturday afternoon, initial reports from those that remained indicate that the screenings were enthusiastically received. So, against all odds, and in a diminished way, Side By Side was still able to hold Russia’s First LGBT Film Festival in 2008. One hopes that 2009 won’t be quite so tumultuous.

[Basil Tsiokos is the outgoing Artistic Director for NewFest: The NY LGBT Film Festival, as well as Documentary Programming Associate for the Sundance Film Festival.]

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