By Sarah Clyne Sundberg
Originally published on Advocate.com October 08 2008 11:00 PM ET
Side by Side was
supposed to be Russia's first LGBT film festival, but on
October 2, just hours before the scheduled premiere,
organizers were met by officials blocking the entrance
to the venue, claiming fire code violations.
"It is sad. In a
sense this is proof that we are treated this way,"
said Ksenia Zemskaya, one of the organizers. "It is a
time of reflection for the community and for a city that
claims to be a cultural capital."
The idea of an
LGBT film festival in St. Petersburg, Russia, is nothing
short of revolutionary. Homosexuality was only removed from
the country's list of mental illnesses in 1999. Though
gay nightlife has seen a modest blossoming since,
public attitudes have not improved much.
opposes his city's gay pride festival, and the parade is
usually met with violent attacks. Just this week, Russian
gay rights activist Nicolas Alexeyev received
permission to hold a protest against a homophobic
politician -- the first officially sanctioned gay
rights event to take place in Russia, PinkNews.co.uk
But in St.
Petersburg, even with its reputation as a center for the
arts, the film festival may well have fallen victim to
Russia's long-running history with homophobia.
volunteers had been working to make the festival happen
for over a year. Filmmakers and jury members had already
converged on the city from across the world, with
guests flying in from all over Russia.
Just two weeks
ago, organizers sounded hopeful.
"We are inventing
a future machine. We don't know how people will react
or what will come out of it," Irina Sergeeva, another
organizer, said at the time.
But the local
press and cultural establishment had been rather hostile.
"When we first
announced we were going to do this, the press debated
if LGBT film is a legitimate art form, or if it is
just perversity. Some famous actors compared it to
pedophilia," Zemskaya said. Through letter-writing
campaigns, Side by Side’s organizers managed to
draw support from a few Russian cultural figures, such as
filmmaker Alexander Sokurov.
When one movie
theater withdrew from hosting the festival, another
stepped in. But this theater also backed down a few weeks
later. Finally, the event was scheduled to be
held at two large private clubs. But the morning of
the festival, the fire department came to the premises and
presented the owners with a fire code violation. The clubs
were closed and officials were stationed in front so
that people would not be allowed to enter.
"It is amazing.
The [fire code] process usually takes a month or more;
now it took 24 hours," Zemskaya remarked dryly.
violations have been used since the early '90s as a pretext
for shutting down events or institutions as Russian
authorities see fit. As recently as February, city
officials used it as an excuse to close the
European University in St. Petersburg.
Zemskaya, and Manny De Guerre hoped that the festival
would plant a seedling of an LGBT cultural scene in
Russia. Features were to include Hedwig and the
Angry Inch and Israeli director Eytan Fox's
The Bubble. To flesh out the program,
Berlin's TEDDY festival donated its entire short film
they aren't certain what their next move will be, but they
refuse to give up entirely.
"We will still do
something. Perhaps a small private event, or maybe we
will move it to Moscow. But it won't be a large official
event the way it deserves to be," Zemskaya said.