Paige Schilt

Russian Officials Attempt (But Fail) to Squelch the Nation's 1st LGBT Film Fest

Filed By Paige Schilt | October 06, 2008 2:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Media, Politics
Tags: John Cameron Mitchell, Russian LGBT Film Festival, Side by Side, Soulforce

Last Thursday, the St. Petersburg fire department shut down both venues for Side by Side, Russia's first LGBT film festival, which was due to open that evening with a screening of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

Alexey Bulokhov, a Russian citizen and Soulforce Director of International Outreach, was in St. Petersburg to present the Russian debut of For the Bible Tells Me So. He describes the scene:

...festival producers Irina and Manny and I arrived early at the venue. We were met with strong law enforcement presence. Electricity was shut off in the venue. There were regular policemen with demonstratively visible batons, representatives from the Ministry of Emergency Situations who typically deal with earthquakes, floods and other national disasters, a court bailiff and a transport van. Several supporters in the area informed Irina that there were two busloads of police in the side streets as well as several cars with what appeared to be private security personnel wearing ski masks."

In spite of this massive display of state power and intimidation, many of the planned screenings and events--including an unforgettable evening with John Cameron Mitchell--did manage to happen below the radar this weekend. It's a story of determination and ingenuity on the part of organizers and audiences alike.

Alexey describes how the show went on beyond the margins of official censorship:

Over the last two days dozens and dozens of people were vacuum-packing into word-of-mouth free screenings in undisclosed locations to claim their Homecoming crowns. Laptop projector onto the widest wall. Such overwhelming thirst. Hearts skipping beats in unison so that in the silence of suspended lives, in the flutter of foreign sounds and colors, a dream perhaps yet mute and black-n-white can recognize itself as a Local. To cry together, together for the first time, for those on the screen and off, immediately to the left, or far behind. A weeping crowd knows no injustice, only compassion. How would you subtitle love?

At this point, I should tell you to go to Alexey's blog to read the rest of the story, but I'm afraid that if you blink you'll miss this magical moment in queer cinematic/cultural/political history, so I'm going to quote at length:

In what was already unfolding as one of the most surreal moments of my routinely surreal life, I was having coffee with John Cameron Mitchell waiting for the end of Hedwig screening nearby so that he could deliver festival closing remarks. We were covering much coffee-talk ground and then he asked if I would listen to him sing a song in Russian. He'd been practicing for the upcoming occasion and wanted to double check his pronunciation. OK. I'm anticipating one of the recognizable folk classics all foreigners tend to favor as an easy entry point into a different culture. John begins to sing the theme song from a nightly television show for children "Good Night, Kids" which features puppet animals that watch a cartoon before going to bed. It has been on the air since 1964 and literally every single living Russian person above the age of three knows this lullaby by heart. Even if they don't know that they know it, they do. Just start humming those opening cords and words will flow from someplace we store all things first: hugs, rainbows, dragonfly wings, bruises, tricycle wheels, secrets.

That's when it hits me: what if this whole festival been just for me? Can this be my own chance at closure? What if in this preoccupation with giving, I am missing something that has been waiting here for me as well? Could this be an instance where I am not an agent, but merely a subject of history; if not world's, then perhaps my own? Is this where I change? [I'm calling mad bluff. What's next?! The sky will fall?! I will allow myself to be loved?! Puh-lease!] However, I recognize that I have completed the largest full circle of my life. I can recite every answered prayer and Craigslist ad that led me here. To a cafe in St Petersburg, across from John Cameron Mitchell. And from beyond his eyes to beyond mine, Hedwig is singing a lullaby to a fellow girlie boy.

I don't know what I have done to deserve this (I blame past life) and I wonder what lies ahead if this is paying forward ... and I breathe. And I correct the way he says the word "we" in Russian. And we go over the song once more. John meets the audience in a dimly lit and poorly ventilated basement. They've sat there for six hours through three feature films, a few shorts and a lifetime worth of affirmation. He praises the tenacity of the festival organizers Irina, Manny and Ksenia. He praises the audience. Then he praises the city officials for an unprecedented demonstration of commitment and efficiency in shutting down the festival. "They worked so hard, they must be exhausted! I have a song for them..." John doesn't get through the opening line before the crowd goes nuts. By the second verse, the whole place is singing and within minutes a few more dozen boys and girls exorcize the demons of their childhood in a sing-along that could blow any megachurch chorale out of the water.

To read the previous posts and to get the latest updates, stay tuned to the Soulforce Q Europe blog. You can contact Alexey at

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Amazing! I'm glad they managed to still have the event- what amazing determination!

Thanks for sharing this, Paige!

BillinStPete | October 7, 2008 8:02 AM

This story brings tears to my eyes. Tears of sadness at the overwhelming level of oppression directed toward LGBTQ people in the world and for the people who are so confused about queer folks that they would abandon their own humanity to relate in such a way.

And tears of joy at the determination and creativity of Alexey and the other festival organizers! This experience makes me certain that the result of the efforts of those folks who are willing to do the hard work of pursuing Truth (with a capital T) will be justice and community for all.

Thanks to all of the activists who are working to make the world a safer and more loving place for everyone!

The issues they've dealt with in Russia is horrible. I'm amazed every time at the sheer injustice in the world.