The future of Russia’s one and only LGBT film festival

New legislation will hit independent and controversial cinema in Russia. The organisers of this LGBT film festival are going to keep on fighting for their right to speak on “forbidden” topics. RU

Evgeny Shtorn
13 September 2018

Spectators of the festival “Side by Side” at the discussion of the film Querama with its director Daisy Asquith. St. Petersburg, November 2017. Photos from the archive of the festival.In July 2018, Russia’s State Duma passed a new law on foreign films in Russia. Only festivals and retrospectives included in a registered “permitted” list will be able to screen films without a special permit, as was previously the case. Everybody will encounter considerable financial and bureaucratic hurdles.

It’s clear that the new law has been designed to restrict the activities of independent cinema and festivals on “sensitive” subjects – such as the Side by Side LGBT and human rights film festival, which recently celebrated its tenth anniversary.

Evgeny Shtorn talks to Gulya Sultanova, one of the festival’s founders, on homophobia and the future of independent cinema in Russia.

Gulya, before we discuss the recent so-called cinema festival law, I’d like you to tell me a little about the annual Side by Side LGBT film festival, which has been taking place for more than ten years in St Petersburg and other Russian cities.

Side by Side is a human rights-themed LGBT festival that has been running in St Petersburg since 2008. We celebrated its 10th birthday last year. Its main aim is to create and develop an open cultural space for dialogue on LGBT subjects. Side by Side uses art to initiate discussion on a whole spectrum of issues relating to the LGBT community’s situation in Russia and around the world, the (non)acceptance and (in)tolerance it encounters and its place in the general fight for human rights.

Over its stormy 11 years history, our festival has lived through and outlived bans and disruption, negative coverage and being ignored by the media, attempts to have it classified as illegal and attacks by xenophobic members of parliament and nationalists.

The two most recent festivals have attracted large audiences: 3,600 in St Petersburg (over ten days) and 1,800 in Moscow (over four). These two cities are our main platforms, but the festival supports showings and discussions of LGBT cinema in other places as well: more than 15 Russian cities have been involved in our project. And apart from showing films, Side by Side publishes awareness raising literature on a large range of subjects, from coming-out and LGBT cinema that has changed the world to queer comics.

Do you cater to different audiences in St Petersburg and Moscow, as well as different audiences in the regions?

After the festival was attacked and subjected to regular acts of provocation in St Petersburg in 2013-2015, our audience there was more tense than in Moscow. But that’s behind us now, people are more relaxed. In Moscow, things have been more glamourous and laid back from the start, and there has been a more diverse crowd than in Petersburg: older, more male and more business people.

I remember the festivals you took to other cities – Kemerovo, Novosibirsk, Perm. Regional audiences are basically less spoilt when it comes to festivals, and certainly LGBT festivals. Have they been a hit?

From 2010 to 2012 we were able to run Side by Side not just in the two capitals, but also in Novosibirsk, Kemerovo, Tomsk, Arkhangelsk and Perm. At that time, there weren’t any explicit homophobic government policies at that time – after an initial reflex negative reaction, the local authorities would revert to disinterest. After a few attempts at disruption, the festival would run in comparative peace and always enjoyed good media coverage and large audiences; there was no problem there.

Our experience of running Side by Side in Kemerovo, for example, was quite typical: the first festival was plagued by disruptions and forced into underground screenings, but after two years of “normalisation” we had peaceful and successful showings with capacity crowds and a constantly neutral-to-friendly interest from the media.


Organizers of the festival “Side by Side” with a guest moderator Ira Roldugina. Gulya Sultanova – second from the left in the second row. St. Petersburg, November 2017. Source: archive of the festival.In the summer of 2012, however, that changed. We were attacked by a nationalist group (funded, as we later discovered, by the city authorities). We had to drop our work in Kemerovo because of this and also because the local organising committee was intimidated and a smear campaign against us led to our volunteer group falling apart. And this pattern was repeated across the country.

What does the map of Russia look like in terms of homophobic reactions to your festival?

Before the government embarked on its homophobic policies, we could even cooperate with it. We had, for example, official support from Novosibirsk’s Department of Culture in 2010. At that time, we would initially either encounter a reflex negative reaction or be ignored, but this would be followed by a gradual acceptance of what we were doing. But 2012-2014 brought an increasingly ferocious official homophobia campaign: a witch-hunt against the entire LGBT community in the media, speeches by Duma members and a hate campaign that culminated in the infamous “gay propaganda” law.

Life became more difficult for us. Cooperation with state bodies, including state-controlled media, stopped entirely, independent platforms and spaces became more cautious and Russians in general more cautious-to-hostile.

But partially “thanks to” the witch-hunt, the LGBT issue became political – which had to happen sooner or later. Those people who have a generally critical attitude to life in Russia today have become more open to LGBT matters, but the majority, who imbibe a daily dose of hatred from the TV screen, have become even more narrow-minded on gender issues. Now we can only run large openly-LGBT events in Petersburg and Moscow, and only one-off small ones in the regions. We run single screenings there. For example, a film followed by a discussion. And that works.

You referred to the effects of the “gay propaganda” law as the politicisation of the subject. I remember how even 10 years ago, the attitude of many human rights campaigners to LGBT issues was, to put it mildly, sceptical. But after the smear campaigns and this ridiculous and harmful law, many of them changed their position, so I would say that the effects of the law were more positive than not. The situation where LGBT people had to stay in the closet has long since disappeared. Side by Side has spent almost half its existence under that law. To what extent has it helped you be heard, attracted new people to the cause, given you new opportunities?

The so-called “propaganda” law immediately made it much more difficult to run our film festival. We are an open cinema forum, and the question of a safe, however open, space is crucial to our work. Immediately after the law was passed, our opponents started using it to demonise the festival and scare the audience away. They threatened to disrupt or ban it, provoke mayhem with teenagers and so on. Regular appearances by homophobic parliamentarians and nationalists hired by them, illegal attempts to interfere with the film festival programme with fake phone calls about mines being laid (in 2013, for example, in five festival days there were five such calls requiring the general evacuation of a venue which was sometimes an enormous shopping centre) – all these ploys halved the size of the audience. It took us two to three years to build our audiences back to the size they had been before the “propaganda” law.


Discussion “How to talk with LGBT teenagers?”, Moderator – psychologist Maria Naymushina. St. Petersburg, November 2017. Source: archive of the organizers of the festival.

Over the last few years (when direct pressure on LGBT organisations weakened), however, the number of people visiting our screenings has dramatically increased – a result of stable and regular activity on our part, as well as the presence of security guards. Our audience feels calmer and safer. Our partner organisations have had the same experience: after the “gay propaganda” law was passed, we had to rebuild public confidence from the start and convince people to go on working with us, even though the state was not on our side. The only good thing the law did was to give us a high media profile and increase awareness of the significance and urgency of the issue of homophobia, bi-phobia and trans-phobia among Russians – a politicisation that was imperative for these issues to be resolved. And we have also gained a lot more volunteers than we had before.

Your involvement with Russian business is striking. You are getting funding from large hotel chains, cosmetics companies and restaurants. How have you managed that?

It’s all down to our perseverance and professionalism. Business people can see that our work is highly professional and are ready to take part in our projects because they understand that we have an interesting and progressive audience and the contribution made by business is ever more visible.

Do the companies that fund you see this as a political statement on their part, or is it just that they realise their target audience will visit your festival and so are read to support you for commercial reasons?

There are a lot of factors here: political motivation, general empathy and a wish to attract new customers to their business.

Do you see any prospect of attracting business to the work of human rights organisations?

Business will work with human rights organisations if they meet two conditions: they mustn’t threaten the actual business (as the saying goes, you can’t sell cookies on a battlefield); and they must be professional and successful in their work. Then everything will be fine.

The new “festival law” that is all over the papers will, as far as I can see, be yet another serious obstacle for you. Can you give me some more info about it, please.

This law could make independent film festivals a thing of the past. The chief snag is the need for the festival to be included in a special “register” that is approved by the government. Otherwise it will need to buy a distribution licence from the Russian Ministry of Culture for every single film in its programme. This will be incredibly expensive, might take years and it’s not clear how the system would work. The main thing is that it will create an absurd situation: why should a festival need a distribution licence when a festival screening involves no distribution? It’s like asking someone for their pilot’s licence when they’re just driving a car.

This law could make independent film festivals a thing of the past

Even festivals on the “register” (which has to be updated annually) will have to limit their range: they can last for no longer than 10 days and take in only one city. Regional tours will be considered the equivalent of one main festival and there must be a jury. All this isn’t easy for independent film festivals, which already receive no financial support from the government and often can’t even use state cinemas to screen their films (ours falls into this category). All this means one thing: a desire on the government’s part to control film festivals and dictate their agenda, otherwise the festival will be dropped, crossed off the list and its distribution licence revoked. This last has happened to film distribution companies more than once.

The law has more or less introduced censorship, which directly contravenes the Russian Constitution. The law is illegal. How can an organisation that works without any government funding be required to be on a register or a list? This is a direct obstacle to your work, an impediment to your cultural exchange and a block to the development of independent creative initiatives.

Do you have a strategy for the future?

I really don’t know what we are going to do. This year we moved Side by Side forward by three weeks, so that we could run it before the new law came into force.

But do you think there is some motivation behind the law, other than pure censorship? Why should a huge country that is armed to the teeth and loves showing off its bombs and submarines be scared of independent film festivals? Even if the entire six-million population of St Petersburg was in the audience, it would still be a drop in the ocean. Might the Ministry of Culture be thinking that festivals could be a good source of income?

It’s difficult to say what the precise reason for the law might be, given the lack of information about the process and people behind it: it’s unclear who actually takes decisions and how they are taken in the corridors of power. All we can see are the people who put them into practice, and they are usually incompetent and unqualified to decide anything, as we’ve seen from the fumbling interviews with officials trying to explain the new legislation. They certainly haven’t succeeded: they are completely unconvincing. So all I can assume is that they have a double motivation: censorship and commercial interests, hand in hand.

The state wants to ban festivals and make money from them at the same time, as well as putting them in a position of dependence. We’re talking, after all, about a military state, and military states fear debate, independent thought and criticism directed at themselves.

Gulya, can you tell us something about what awaits us at Side by Side this November?

Let’s hope so! We’ll be showing the hits of other festivals: winners from Cannes and the Berlinale, documentaries on controversial subjects and hot and lively shorts. There’ll be “A Fantastic Woman”, a Chilean film from the new queer genius Sebastiano Lelio that won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2017 (its star Daniela Vega might be at the festival) and “Girl”, by Belgian director Lukas Dhont that carried off the “Un Certain Regard” prize for a first film at Cannes. There will also be Rupert Everett’s “Happy Prince” and the Paraguayan/Uraguayan smash hit “The Heiresses” that won three awards at Berlinale 2018. And each and every film in the programme will be an event in itself.

But apart from its cinematic strength, this year’s Side by Side has an important socio-political element: it is 25 years since the repeal of Article 121 of Russia’s Criminal Code, under which passing on a sexually transmittable disease was a criminal offence. A separate evening will be devoted to the subject of this issue in the early 1990s, including a lecture by researcher Alexander Kondakov. Two other documentaries will explore the music of activism: one about the Swedish rap star Silvana and the other about the Brazilian group Bixa Travesty (a 2018 Teddy Award winner). And that’s just a small part of the programme.


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