The Out Take: Russia's Only LGBT Film Festival Fights for its Life

side by side festival

The Out Take is a biweekly column about queer representations in cinema. It runs on alternating Thursday mornings.

Side by Side, Russia’s LGBT film festival, is in trouble. This May the festival was charged by a local prosecutor with violating a new administrative code regulating non-profit organizations. The accusation, which the festival claims is entirely unfounded, is that Side by Side should register as a “foreign agent.” The trial took place earlier this summer, and on June 6th a judge ruled against the festival (after a whopping 10 minutes of deliberation). Finally, on July 26th, their appeal was rejected. The festival has been fined €12,500.

Given the last month of news, it’s almost surprising that Side by Side exists in the first place. On the one hand, the Russian film industry isn’t in very good shape. As Vadim Rizov explained earlier this week, Putin’s government and its Culture Ministry are essentially killing the Russian film industry with new funding rules and the pending introduction of a system of censorship akin to Old Hollywood’s Hays Code.

Meanwhile, there is the bigger news story of the summer: the government’s outright legal assault on its own LGBT citizens. In June, the State Duma passed a new federal law banning “homosexual propaganda,” the implications of which are grave and unsettling. The legal crackdown has already led to a crackdown on LGBT organizations like Side by Side, as well as the arrest of foreign tourists. And, emboldened by this state-sanctioning of homophobia, ultranationalist groups across the country have taken to public, violent assaults on individual gay youth, videos of which have already surfaced online. The big picture is as harrowing as it is shocking.

Right at the middle of this whirlwind is Side by Side film festival. Started in 2008 in St. Petersburg, this growing institution of Queer cinema plans to celebrate its 6th anniversary this fall, if such a thing is now possible. The festival’s mission is to show LGBT films everywhere they can, and encourage as wide a conversation as possible.  Their vision is national, and they have produced subsidiary festivals in five other cities, including Moscow. In addition to showing films, they lead workshops and discussions around issues of LGBT identity and rights.

In the eyes of a homophobic Russian judicial system, what Side by Side has done for the last few years is perhaps the most horrifying example of well-organized “homosexual propaganda” on record. From a more rational perspective, the programmers, organizers and volunteers that have helped keep this unlikely film festival alive are nothing short of heroes.

Let’s start far away from St. Petersburg, in Siberia. It is June 7th, 2012. A poetic accident of timing has aligned the Novosibirsk edition of the Side by Side festival with the regional legislature’s taking up of a “anti-homosexual propaganda” bill similar to the national version that would pass the following summer. A group of local youths have gathered around the movie theater where the festival is taking place, shouting homophobic insults and threatening violence. The police response is predictably minimal, and at the end of a screening, guests and organizers are helped away from the mob by private security. A higher ranking policeman makes it clear that on the following day, he has no intention of creating any police presence at all. Forced by the fear of assault, Side by Side cancels the third and final day of the event.

This is hardly an isolated incident. Similar shows of police negligence and local intimidation have characterized Side by Side events in the Siberian cities of Tomsk and Kemerovo, as well as in Moscow and at home in St. Petersburg. Local venue owners have canceled their arrangements with the festival and local authorities have tried shutting the event down. Yet, knowing full well that without LGBT visibility things in Russia will never get better, Side by Side refuses to give in to the many pressures.

And then there’s the question of Russian cinema. The vast majority of the films showed at Side by Side’s events are foreign, simply because they have to be. Just this past April, the 2nd Side by Side Film Festival in Moscow screened eight feature-length films, none of them Russian. They include some of the best international LGBT films of recent years, like Céline Sciamma’s “Tomboy” and Andrew Haigh’s “Weekend,” but finding local work to highlight is more difficult.

It is, after all, not easy to make films in Russia. Once the impending production code is implemented, it will likely be nearly impossible to make LGBT films. Yet Side by Side’s most recent edition featured an entire program of Russian LGBT shorts, an encouraging evening that must have been truly thrilling for attendees. Six films were presented last November in St. Petersburg, all made within the last couple of years. The program was entitled “Russian Shorts: The Beginning,” a hopeful and confident choice.

Now, with the court ruling, Side by Side faces perhaps its greatest challenge yet. It’s one thing to combat regional legislation and police negligence, but a nation-wide legal campaign that has clearly gone out of its way to target LGBT organizations is another matter.

Much of the Western attention to this humanitarian crisis has been focused on the Olympics, to be held in Sochi next year. The most publicized action by LGBT groups has, so far, been a boycott of Russian vodka. This is, as they say, all well and good.

But a crucially important LGBT organization has been hit with legal intimidation and an enormous fine. Side by Side is doing their best to make up for this disaster and survive, partnering with the Berlin Film Festival’s Teddy Award to raise funds. There’s even a brochure on their website to explain who they are and what they’re up against. If you’re not buying Russian vodka anymore, maybe help out Side by Side rather than Absolut or Svedka. The festival’s dedication to showcasing LGBT cinema and, more importantly, using it to engage in a dialogue with communities all across the nation, may very well do more to help stop this horrifying situation than any commercial boycott.