Culture, Europe, Globe, Screen

Filming LGBTQ+ life behind Russia’s pink curtain

Paul Rice and his partner Liam travelled across Russia on the Trans-Siberian railway, making contact with LGBTQ+ groups along the route. Despite his lack of film-making experience, and their need to appear as innocent tourists, they achieved a remarkable document, “A worm in the heart”, which reveals the extent of repression in Russia today.


Graham Douglas


Prior to the 17th Century Russia was regarded as a relatively tolerant place in comparison to Western Europe, and despite the introduction of laws mostly related to the armed forces, serious repression during Communist times only began under Stalin in 1933.

These laws were later repealed, and Yeltsin supported sexual freedom, as did Putin in a 2007 speech.

There were Gay Pride events in 2006 and later, but under pressure from the religious right the Gay Propaganda Law (GPL) was passed in 2013 by a majority of 488:1. The law does not criminalize gays but prohibits public displays of affection, and since this time violence against the LGBTQ+ community has greatly increased, affecting Transgender people and youth most of all.

As has Mark Gevisser explained recently, the situation can be seen as a culture war, in which people’s attitudes to LGBTQ+ people are being co-opted by groups on both sides of the political spectrum, while stopping short of criminalization of LGBTQ+ people.

Thus, in Russia, Poland and Hungary, the oppressive narrative claims that recognizing LGBTQ+ rights was another surrender to the spread of ‘Western’ values.

Paul Rice

In the Netherlands the game was played the other way, by saying that LGBTQ+ rights must be maintained to hold back the tide of repressive Islam and immigration in general.

Paul Rice answered questions from The Prisma about his extraordinary film A worm in the heart”, by email, due to Covid-19 restrictions which also meant that the Visions du Reel festival was held online this year.

Lots of people recognise the situation of LGBTQ+ repression, but most of them don’t decide to travel across Russia to make a film.

The LGBT+ community has a terrible history of losing its heroes; so many of those who have fought for greater freedoms and stood against social injustices died from assassinations, violence or AIDS. I wanted to meet and document Queer activists in Russia who are currently fighting for their very right to exist. Too often their struggles are lost in surges of violence.

Is there a religious aspect to the GPL?

Absolutely. The far religious right in Russia have cleverly instilled the idea that they are aligned with Russian values, and claim to be the ‘true voice’ of Russia. Therefore, anything that goes against the far religious right in Russia is seen as a threat to Russian values.

The film says that anti-gay ideology and rhetoric were borrowed from the US

It’s really important to recognize the failures of Western nations towards their LGBT+ communities. Section 28 was enforced in the UK until the early 2000s, which strictly forbade any discussion of homosexuality as being normal or acceptable in government-run bodies — including schools and local councils. British PM Margaret Thatcher famously said that “Children are being taught they have an inalienable right to be gay. All of those children are being cheated of a sound start in life.” There are direct parallels to Russia’s Gay Propaganda Law, however Russia has obviously taken it several damaging steps further. Numerous states in the USA have anti-LGBT legislation that Russia also took cues from.

Domestic abuse is illegal, yet GPL law blocks assistance to LGBTQ+ adolescents being abused – can NGOs intervene?

While we were in Russia, the Russian Duma voted overwhelmingly to de-criminalize domestic abuse. This makes it even harder for the state or police to intervene in situations where LGBT+ youth might be being abused by their family. LGBT+ organizations cannot directly support minors due to the Gay Propaganda Law. At best, LGBT+ NGOs offer legal support and put minors in contact with lawyers. The Russian government has cleverly made it incredibly difficult for the LGBT+ community to protect itself, especially its most vulnerable members — minors.

The GPL doesn’t criminalize being gay, but outlaws the simplest public displays of affection. Why did they adopt this approach?

Outlawing any display of LGBT+ orientation in public sends a signal to the general population that this group of people (LGBT+) are dangerous, and that associating with them is undesirable. Russian authorities argue that if minors see homosexuality, they’ll perceive it as an acceptable sexual orientation and somehow ‘become’ LGBT+. This is a ridiculous narrative, but it serves another purpose — it instils the idea that LGBT+ people are somehow related to paedophilia and are therefore dangerous.

Yael is a very strong person, how did she become involved? The situation seems many times more extreme than in Europe, how do the majority cope?

Yael is an incredibly important figure in the LGBT+ community in Russia. After the fall of the USSR, Yael was responsible for translating medical information on transgenderism into Russian, making much of this literature publicly available for the first time in Russia. Yael also organized the first ever Transgender support group in Russia, other Trans people travelled thousands of kilometres from all over Russia to her Moscow apartment for those meetings. It was incredible for myself and my partner Liam to meet her and become close friends of hers.

The Russian LGBT+ community cope with the incredibly awful situation in so many different ways. Russians are tough, and LGBT+ Russians are no different, many just stay strong and go about their lives as best they can. Others put their lives at risk and protest publicly — often facing intense violence. Some in the LGBT+ community understandably remain in the closet and are only ‘out’ to a very small circle of friends.

Did you feel in danger and how did you protect yourselves?

Liam and I felt immense danger traveling across Russia. We took many precautions, as what we were doing was illegal and we could have easily been arrested. We decided to pretend we were tourists who were (I pretended to be married to his sister). We changed our names on all our social media profiles, and deleted those apps from our phones in case they were confiscated.

How did you find a translator willing to take risks?

As we were pretending to be tourists, we couldn’t bring a translator with us, instead we asked everyone we interviewed if they had a friend with some English that could translate loosely for us. In situations where the person had no friends with any English language skills or felt it was too dangerous, we conducted the interview using translate apps on our phones — it was very difficult but for our safety and theirs we had to keep our operations small.

What do you hope the film can achieve that news reporting cannot?

News reporting on the LGBT+ situation in Russia is so important, but it can often lack an emotional and personal dimension, and I hope this film brings humanity to the forefront. A Worm in the Heart gives voice to those who were brave enough to open their lives and homes to us, who fearlessly shared their emotions and personal stories against the backdrop of horrific LGBT+ persecution in Russia. I hope all those who see this film relate to the subjects as people, and are motivated enough to continue amplifying the voices of the Russian LGBT+ community.

Repression in Chechnya is especially brutal. What is happening in the case of Igor Kotchekov?

Igor Kochetkov is the Noble Peace Prize-nominated president of the LGBT Network in Russia, who has worked tirelessly for LGBT+ rights across Russia for years and met with President Obama over the issue of human rights in Russia. It was an honour to meet with him for our film, and he remains a pillar of strength for the LGBT+ community of Russia and beyond. He and the LGBT Network have done immense work for the LGBT+ population of Chechnya, and their work continues — however much of it is kept secret for security concerns.

Do you have any other projects planned? How can readers contribute?

I have some future projects in progress, however due to COVID-19, most of them are on hold. I would urge all those who see “A worm in the heart” and read this interview to donate to the LGBT Network in Russia. They are one of the few NGOs who can publicly accept donations from abroad.

(Photos supplied by Peculiar Productions LLC)

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