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.
Moscow's mayor 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 reported.
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.
Organizers and 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.
Fire code 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.
Sergeeva, 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 archive.
Organizers say 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.