The biggest LGBT film festival in Russia is back in St Petersburg for a ten-day event with films, discussions and a very special guest
Side by Side, the biggest LGBT film festival in Russia, is back in its place of birth, St Petersburg, this time to celebrate its 10th anniversary.
Its ten-year-long struggle started in 2007, in a climate where being LGBT was already regarded with suspicion. The implementation of the so-called “gay propaganda law” in 2013 exacerbated intolerance and legitimised homophobia. But the past ten years have also been marked by important achievements and international recognition.
It is with this note that Side by Side will be opening this year on Thursday 16 November, with an attentively selected programme of guests, including film directors, actors, and both local and international activists and experts.
Ten years of history
”A lot of this history often gets lost and people forget what we have been through,” says the organiser of the festival, Manny de Guerre.
“A lot of new young people are coming to the festival and they don’t know the history so we think it’s important to remind [them] of our successes, but also all of the difficulties that we have gone through.“
Every year the struggle to make the festival happen have been numerous, but the situation in St Petersburg seems to be getting better, affirms Manny.
In the past years, Side by Side has often been the target of homophobes, religious fanatics, and groups of right-wing radicals. The festival, which now attracts thousands of people each year, even had to face several bomb threats that increased the pressure on the hosting venues. However, the past years have been marked by an improved collaboration with the authorities, local venues, and the press.
“It has become easier to create contacts and establish informational partners and work with them, so that’s a good change,” says Manny.
The importance of a safe island
The ten-day festival offers an opportunity for the community to see themselves represented in film and to discuss issues of concern in a public forum. Actors and directors of the selected films are also present to lead and participate in the discussions, offering a perspective on the situation for LGBT people from other countries.
Anastacia Dyumina, the official interpreter of Side by Side for more than three years, attests to the power of these films and how they instil courage in Russia’s LGBT community.
She approached the festival for the first time in 2013 as a spectator. The first movie screened was Codebreaker, a documentary about Alan Turing, the “gay” father of computer science, which drastically changed her life.
“That first movie made me come out — literally made me. That year they also had a collection of shorts about correctional rape in Africa and I remember feeling devastated and that was the beginning. The film and those videos made me speak up for the first time and I never thought that I would have been that person who would speak up about issues like that. It is very controversial, very provocative, you can lose friends and family over that,” she says.
For her, and probably many other spectators, it was the first time that she was exposed to a community of LGBT people in a space where LGBT issues could be discussed openly. “I did talk to individual gay people before, but as a student I didn’t have a community to go to. I am not into clubbing, not into the night scene, so the festival was the first time in which I was engaging in any activity within the community.”
The programme this year
Every year, the festival presents international films on different themes aimed at starting a discussion about the current situation in Russia. This year, some of the discussions will be centered around the theme of rainbow families, football, young and LGBT, and historical memory.
Among the movies screened will be RARA, a film about LGBT families, centered on a gay couple with children: “the film is set in Chile where LGBT have legal rights but there is still a lot of stigma. It depicts how the family copes with talking about certain issues, and is about lesbian parents, how to deal with the school, and also how children cope with this and bullying,” says Manny.
The film will be followed by a discussion with LGBT parents and psychologists on the influence of the gay propaganda law on people’s behaviour and how to talk with children about LGBT issues.
Another topic, particularly relevant in the run-up to the 2018 World Cup in Russia, will be presented by Forbidden Games, a documentary about the troubled life of English footballer Justin Fashanu that raises the issues of homophobia and racism in football. The discussion will be led by sport commentator Pavel Bogdahov, and joined by Pavel Klymenko, a member of the FARE organisation, which combats discrimination in football, as well as a former football player from the G.D.R. Marcus Urban who became famous as Germany’s first openly-gay footballer.
The Irish movie Handsome Devil will open the discussion on the issue of being young and LGBT. The movie opens a critical dialogue about the impact that the lack of information has on Russian teenagers who came of age around the time when the gay propaganda law was being passed. It will be led by psychologists and representatives of the ombudsman on children’s rights.
Besides current topics, the festival will offer an opportunity to take a glimpse into history with the Spanish movie Bones of Contention, which explores the theme of historical memory in Spain, where the remembrance of crimes against the LGBT community under Francoism has often been suppressed. The movie raises parallels with Russian historical memory, such as the persecution of the LGBT community under Stalin.
This year, the festival will open with a party in which a very special guest will be announced, who will be present on the last day of the festival on Saturday 25 November.
“The message of Side by Side is that people have the right to be and express who they are, without judgment or discrimination from others,’ affirms Manny.
“In a challenging context such as Russia this is not always easy and at times is a considerable struggle. However, by coming together and through peaceful dialogue it is possible to change the situation, bringing round people to positions of greater tolerance while at the same time empowering those who feel marginalised,” she concludes.