Russian LGBT Film Fest pushes ahead despite attacks

Posted by in Art Threat, Festivals, Interviews

It is an extreme act of bravery and commitment to put on a queer film festival in many parts of the world, where the cultural politics of film festivals play out in ugly and often violent manifestations of hatred and ignorance. Homophobia is rampant the world over, but in countries like Russia the fear and hatred leveled against queer compatriots is often given state-sanctioned space to flourish and impinge on the rights of others. Gay pride parades in Russia and many locations throughout the former Soviet block have become battlegrounds where, as was the case at one parade in Sofia, Bulgaria, participants are outnumbered by police and/or haters (participants at this year’s Sofia pride parade were stronger in numbers).

These parade incidents have garnered international headlines but less has been made of the queer festivals that are steadfastly staking out ground in the cultural commons and public spheres of those same societies. In Russia the Side By Side (“Bok o Bok”) festival has been operating for the last five years, and its organizers have faced discrimination and violence from homophobic youth while receiving little to no support or protection from the state. Just last month one of the festival’s venues was the focus of a homophobic mob who were asked to leave by officers (those same police had been warned about the group in advance and had carried out no preventative measures). The mob then followed festival organizers and participants in cars after the police had left, with some even smashing some automobile windows.

Such are the environments that many cultural workers and activists still contend with, yet a passionate commitment and resolve keeps each embattled festival from disappearing altogether. To discuss these issues with regards to the Step By Step festival, Art Threat recently chatted with the festival’s founder, Manny de Guerre.

Art Threat: Can you give us a little background on the festival – when it started, who started it, its mandate/purpose.

Manny de Guerre: In Russian society there is a great deal of homophobia and transphobia. LGBT people face unprecedented levels of intolerance and prejudice. The Russian government does nothing to stop discrimination and is in fact a key protagonist, giving license to even greater expression of hate and discrimination within society towards sexual minority groups.

Side by Side Festival Poster, 2011

Side by Side, founded in Summer 2007, set out to challenge this situation. The idea for the festival was my initiative and I worked with a friend to get it all going. Our aim through screening films, panel discussions, seminars, workshops and exhibitions we seek to create a positive dialogue with society in order to challenge negative stereotypes that exist about LGBT people and inform, educate and enlighten people on issues relating to sexual orientation and gender identity. Through our work we aim to foster respect of human rights of LGBT persons and fundamentally bring about greater tolerance, broader acceptance and visibility of sexual minority groups in Russian society.

The climate in which we work is challenging. In the first year of the festival: 2-5th October, 2008 in Saint Petersburg the festival was banned by the authorities. The festival was to take place at two venues Sochi and The Place. On the eve of the festival fire inspectors visited the clubs and closed them down for violating fire regulations. These were naturally fabricated charges and this practice is usual for the authorities when they do not want something that they don’t like to go ahead. This was not the first time we had problems with venues and in the lead up to the first festival in 2008 various venues: Dom Kino (local arts cinema) and Pik (a large centrally located multiplex) were forced to pull out on their agreements to host the festival following threats from the authorities. Read a report in English here.

In 2008 the festival did go ahead but in closed conditions. An alternative venue was found and people were informed by word of mouth to the screenings. We refused to let the Russian government silence our activities and decided to continue with the film festival and work towards a second attempt in 2009. From December, 2008 – July, 2009 towards the run up of the second festival (23 – 31 October, 2009) we strengthened our base of support working with other film festivals (screening part of our programme), organizing events with foreign institutes such as the Goethe and also doing independent monthly screenings of our own. By taking this approach we sent a clear message to the government that we are not going to go away, we are here to stay and that we have many people who support us and want such festival in Saint Petersburg.

From 23 – 31 October, 2009 we held the second Side by Side LGBT Film Festival in Saint Petersburg. The authorities did not stop the film festival. A total of 23 films were screened and 8 discussions with invited guests and audience participation took place in 9 different locations dispersed across the city. In the region of 2000 visitors attended the film festival, 20% of which identified as heterosexual.

The festival in Saint Petersburg since that time has gone from strength to strength and this year we will be holding the fifth Side by Side in the city.
From 2010 we began working in the regions of Russia. We began to work in Novosibirsk, Kemerovo and Archangelsk. In Kemerovo and Archangel the festivals were stopped by authorities (as in Saint Petersburg in 2008). They did go ahead but in a more closed format. Novosibirsk went ahead without problems. We had 700 visitors to the festival in Novosibirsk. In 2011 both festivals in Kemerovo and Novosibirsk went ahead without problems but in Tomsk (a new city in 2011) the festival was stopped. In 2012 in Tomsk the festival went forward without any problems but in Kemerovo and Novosibirsk we faced strong opposition (as I wrote about in the recent press releases). Click here to view some photos from the opening.

Queer festivals in Eastern Europe face all kinds of obstacles, including violence from haters, in many countries yet brave organizers continue to put on new editions each year. What keeps you going and why do you think homophobia finds such strong expression around these events?

Our research shows that our methods are working and we are fulfilling the mission of the festival. There is a lack of information concerning LGBT issues and though our films, discussions, literature we are able to break silence on these issues and bring information to the public. Our statistics show that we have broad audiences – the festival is not just for LGBT people but is for everyone – and 29% of our audience is straight.

In the answer to the question to those that identified as non-LGBT 80% responded with view that the film festival help to understand and accept others who are LGBT. The remaining respondents either did not know 19% or disagreed 1%. Comments by these respondents (non-LGBT identified) underline the capabilities and value of the festival:
“It is necessary to talk. The more we are silent about the issue, the more the fear there is. So that there isn’t any fear we need to show the real life of LGBT people.” (female, heterosexual, age group 20-29, Tomsk)

“The lack of knowledge is the reason of fear. Information allows to accept and understand different people.” (male, heterosexual, age group 30-39, Tomsk)

“Despite the fact that I’m heterosexual, I have many gay friends and very worried about them because I often hear homophobic aggressive statements. People often respond negatively only because they’re afraid and don’t understand gay people. Such festivals and movies help shape a new understanding of gays and lesbians, removing stereotypes and eliminating misunderstanding. (female, heterosexual, age group 20-29, Tomsk)

“Every person should have equal rights. Everyone has the right to love and be loved and nothing should influence the treatment towards the individual – not sexual orientation or skin colour, nothing. I’m against any form of discrimination.” (female, heterosexual, age group 20-39, Saint Petersburg)

LGBT People also view the festival as an important educational tool through which individuals are able to learn more about themselves, reflect and identify with whom they are. In the answer to the question to those that identified as LGBT 82% responded with view that the film festival helped them to understand and accept who they are. The remaining respondents either did not know 15% or disagreed 3%.

Comments by these respondents (LGBT identified) captured a range of sentiments:

“To be honest I actively seek out these kinds of events as they help me to understand myself more.” (male, gay, age group 20-29, Kemerovo)

“Personally the festival helps me overcome my internal homophobia. To watch films about people like me and be among the LGBT community, openly enjoying and experiencing the protagonists lives on the film. It is a wonderful world free of homophobia.” (female, bisexual, age group 20-29, Saint Petersburg)

“I’m really positive about the festival because I’m lesbian and I’m glad that my orientation is spoken about and there is nothing to feel ashamed about it.” (female, lesbian, age group 30-39, Saint Petersburg)

“I am happy that I am gay. I am happy that there are such events like Side by Side” (male, gay, age group 20-29, Saint Petersburg)

Despite the difficulties we see results and the value of the festival which maintains motivation and desire to keep going.

Manny de Guerre (middle) with friends

Why do you think homophobia finds such strong expression around these events?

Over the last 2 to 3 years the LGBT movement in Russia has started to make significant headway. Increasing visibility of the LGBT community, greater vocalization and observance of rights for LGBT persons, tolerant and objective reporting on LGBT issues within the press and media and the gradual winning over of the general public towards a more tolerant and unprejudiced stance toward LGBT persons are among just some of the gains.

These successes, however, have not been welcomed by all sectors of society and currently the LGBT movement is facing a backlash with oppositional conservative voices within government, the orthodox church, far right and ultra national groups orchestrating a rigorous campaign which to date has resulted in the continuing extension of a law (already in place in Ryazan since 2006) to Archangelsk in September, 2011, Kostroma in February, 2012, Saint Petersburg in March, Novosibirsk and Samara in June, 2012 criminalizing the circulation of information about homosexuality.

Our festival is a public event, very visible and is therefore a target for those groups.

At Gay Pride parades in cities like Sofia I have been told that while there used to be little to no police protection, now the police sometimes outnumber participants. While it’s certainly a positive development that there is police presence, it’s also troubling that they would outnumber participants. Can you speak to the role of police at your festival — are they offering protection, is there support — and also do they outnumber participants at the festival or is this not the case?

Side by Side has been working in the field for 5 years. We have been incredibly active holding festivals and special events around the country. At our events the safety of volunteers and audience is paramount. There is usually private security at all our events and up until this year we have had no major incident. All in all we have gathered around 14,000 people to the festival. In Saint Petersburg we have on average around 2,500 visitors, in Moscow (2012) 1,200 and in smaller cities between 200 – 350 visitors.

As I mentioned above we are presently facing a back lash. There is the continuing extension of the homophobic law. This law is giving license to those groups – nationalist and religious – who are ready to use violence against LGBT persons. The festival is feeling this change in climate. This year we have had constant threats of physical violence and groups picketing outside the venues during screenings. In Moscow in April we had pickets every day. We informed the police. In Moscow the police fulfilled their duties entirely and provided the right security for the festival against protestors. As I mentioned we had around 1000 visitors and police did not outnumber visitors. In Kemerovo and Novosibirsk the police did not fulfill their duties and put the safety of individuals at risk (as I outlined in the recent PRs)

Who are the homophobes/haters? Are these mainly disaffected youth or is there organizational support behind the campaigns and attacks?

Nationalists and religious orthodox groups. Putin’s government is effectively orchestrating and manipulating these groups for their own purposes.

How has the Russian media covered the festival and its troubles? Has there been fair representation or does the homophobia extend to the media as well?

Over the last five years there has been a major turn around in the media. In 2008 reporting on the festival and any other LGBT events was extremely homophobic. Now however there has been a major change and reporting is mostly neutral or even positive. The homophobic laws have got a great deal of coverage and the press have come forward in support of LGBT issues rather than against, this is especially true for the liberal and more progressive press. There is of course still a lot of censorship going on but the situation is better, but still needs work.

Has the festival reached out to allies in Russia and elsewhere in terms of seeking support to not only put on the festival but to deal with the attacks from haters? Has the festival connected with other queer festivals in Eastern Europe to strategize and share information?

We have a very strong network of support. We are working at diplomatic levels and work with many other cultural, human rights organizations and festivals within and outside Russia. We are exchanging information and providing support to one another. In 2008 when I was looking for support for the festival the Teddy Award was one of the first organizations to support us. In Saint Petersburg we work closely with Open Eyes Film Festival Against Racism and Xenophobia. Every year we participate in this event putting on a day of LGBT film. Our network is very strong and is multifunctional.

Finally, what are future plans for the festival and its organizers?

At the moment we are focusing on the 5th Side by Side LGBT Film Festival in Saint Petersburg. The dates are 26 October – 2 November, 2012. The major theme for this year’s festival are global and local processes of the LGBT movement, exploring the discourses and practices relating to LGBT politics, activism, sexual and gender identity rights in official global dialogues and how they translate to national and local realities in countries such as Russia, Georgia, China, India and Uganda for example (places where LGBT movements are still in their infancy and face great opposition).

Additionally, we will be launching an advocacy campaign: Stop Homophobia in Russia Now! The advocacy campaign will target audiences at community, public and institutional based levels. The aim is to raise awareness of homophobia (its manifestations and dangers to society) with the result to stimulate LGBT members and representatives, general public, professionals, decision and policy makers to mobilize against discriminatory and homophobic behaviour, practices and policies in Russia.

Lastly, we will be taking legal action concerning what happened in Siberia and will be continuing with our work in the regions.

Image at top: Manny de Guerre with friends at the festival’s first attempt in Tomsk. Images courtesy of Manny de Guerre.