Bomb threats, disruptive politicians, gay propaganda laws and protests. These are only a few of the many challenges that an LGBT film festival faces in Russia. Nevertheless, Side by Side keeps growing and will be back in St Petersburg for its 9th edition starting Thursday
There won’t be a single cinema in St Petersburg this year hosting Russia’s only LGBT film festival, Side by Side. Varshavsky Express Cinema, which hosted last year’s opening, decided to pull out, wary of a repeat of last year when the politician Vitaly Milonov showed up in an unsuccessful attempt to disrupt the festival. It is an ever-present challenge and has always been, but Manny De Guerre, founder of the film festival, seems anything but defeated when we met her to talk about her project in her vibrant office on Ligovsky Prospekt.
Side by Side
Having moved to Russia from England at the end of the 90s, Manny was struck by the secretiveness the LGBT community was living in: ”It was rare that someone had come out”, she says. Most people had concocted very elaborate stories to tell their families, while some arranged fake marriages.
This environment sparked her idea of organising a festival to open a dialogue with society. In 2007, Side by Side took place for the first time in St Petersburg, in a period that seemed promising for the LGBT community: “We had created a public platform in which these issues could be discussed for the first time and the media had also started to report on them, and then in 2011 we had this backlash with Milonov and also Russia taking this new traditionalist path”.
The implementation of the gay propaganda law meant extra care on where and how to advertise the festival but not the end of it. In nine years of existence, the achievements of Side by Side have been many. Last year more than 2,000 people participated in the event and among them between 20 to 30% did not identify as LGBT.
“The idea of the festival is that we have a different informational platform giving correct information about LGBT and we are trying to fight against the information distributed by the government. It is an information war,” she explains.
Every year the festival presents international movies addressing different issues which are reflective of current social concerns. This year, in addition to LGBT issues, films and discussions will also highlight the rights of women, the disabled and the HIV positive community. One of the films chosen this year, Angry Indian Goddesses, deals with violence against women and women’s rights, a topic which has raised vivid discussions in India this year but which is also very applicable to Russia.
HIV, another topic also relevant in the Russian context given the ongoing epidemic, will be featured in Theo & Hugo and Back on Board. The latter movie features the openly gay and HIV positive Olympic diver Greg Louganis, who will be present to discuss the film. Side by Side will screen six feature movies, nine documentaries and 19 shorts over 10 days. Each session will be followed by a discussion with the actors and directors. Find the full schedule here.