MOSCOW – A taboo-breaking Russian film tackling the topic of gay love may have earned critical plaudits but its makers fear few will ever see the movie given the crackdown on so-called “homosexual propaganda.”
A controversial new law signed in June by President Vladimir Putin makes it legal to ban events that could be seen as promoting homosexuality to minors.
Western stars including British actor Stephen Fry and US pop star Lady Gaga have publicly criticized the law, which so far has been largely used as a threat rather than enforced.
So when the makers of “Winter Journey,” a passionate story of a gay classical singer falling in love with a street-wise petty criminal, pitched it to one of Russia’s main summer film festivals, Kinotavr, they were surprised it was refused.
“For the organizers of the festival it was uncomfortable, because there is such a law, so they thought it was better not to get involved,” director Sergei Taramayev told AFP.
“At least people who were in the jury told us that this was the reason why we were not accepted for Kinotavr.”
The film’s co-writer Lyubov Lvova said she believed festivals feared they could lose funding if they showed the film.
“At many festivals – Russian ones – this scared the organizers a lot. They were afraid of this law, that it could stop them getting financing for their festivals.”
Taramayev said they did not even submit the film to Russia’s main film forum, Moscow International Film Festival – opened by Brad Pitt this summer – because of the views of its organizer, Oscar-winning director Nikita Mikhalkov.
“He supports the government’s line and is a very political director and we realized that they would not take us.”
Nevertheless, Kommersant daily’s film critic Lidya Maslova argued that the film would “look great at any European festival.”
‘We can’t quite believe this miracle’
The film won prizes at the two smaller Russian festivals where it was shown, at the Window into Europe festival in Vyborg in northwestern Russia in August and at Moscow Premiere in September.
The film takes its title from a Schubert song cycle, Winterreise, that the hero, Erik, a music student, is anxiously practicing for a competition.
His teacher slams his unemotional performance, until Erik is transformed by a chance meeting with his polar opposite: Lyokha, a manic, foul-mouthed youth from a dead-end provincial town who is frankly homophobic.
“Don’t you have enough poofters already?” he asks, catching Erik’s adoring gaze.
Nevertheless they click, and share a climactic kiss.
But ultimately, Lyokha is unable to accept his feelings.
The film’s makers said they believed the low-budget film was awarded an 18 certificate because of the new law.
The adults-only release is perhaps justified by scenes of smoking spliffs, vodka swilling and swearing, but probably not by the film’s one gay kiss.
But the film’s makers expressed relief that the culture ministry permitted its release at all.
“We still can’t quite believe in this miracle,” said co-writer Lvova.
Only a few Russian films have featured gay characters in a country where the fear and dread of homosexuality, a criminal offence in the Soviet era, still casts a shadow.
Homosexual relationships were legalized in 1993, but Russia’s medical establishment only ceased classing homosexuality as a psychiatric condition in 1999.
“The Creation of Adam” about a man falling for his guardian angel, which came out in 1993, is seen as Russia’s first gay-themed film.
Later films have included the 2009 drama called “Jolly Fellows,” a sympathetic but ultimately tragic story about drag queens working in a Moscow night club.
‘This isn’t a gay drama’
“Winter Journey” won a warm reception from critics, who nevertheless predicted it would only reach a small audience.
Kommersant praised Yevgeny Tkachuk’s “natural” performance, while Vedomosti business daily called the film “a very serious and subtle artistic statement.”
Komsomolskaya Pravda called it “wonderfully talented.”
Vedomosti critic Dmitry Savelyev praised the director for “not worrying about the danger of getting a reputation as a propagandist for influences that are alien to our people.”
The actors however said they preferred not to call it a “gay film.”
“This isn’t a gay drama,” said actor Vladimir Mishukov, who plays a paramedic in love with Erik, at a Moscow presentation.
“The world is multi-faceted, and we are the same.”
“For me it’s all exaggeration calling this a gay film. It’s a story about a romantic attitude to life,” said actor Yevgeny Tkachuk, who plays Lyokha.
The makers said they chose to make the hero gay because this exacerbates his sense of alienation.
“It underlines his loneliness and conflict with the world. That is why we made him gay, to make him more in conflict with society,” Taramayev said.
“We will put off a certain number of viewers, that is for sure. But when we made the film we were not counting on making a blockbuster for the broad public. It’s not the ‘Dark Knight’,” he said, referring to the 2008 Batman film.
It was unclear whether the film would get a wider release.
“As for a cinema release, at the moment we are holding talks, but so far there is nothing concrete…” producer Mikhail Karasyov wrote in an e-mail to AFP on Tuesday.