How to normalize being gay in Russia?
How can someone tell the coming-of-age story of a young man who finds out he is gay in modern-day Russia, where intolerance is codified in a "gay propaganda law" and traditional values reign supreme in mass media? And more importantly – how can they do it in a way that does not employ the “flamboyant gay life” stereotypes or fall into the trap of typical Eastern European filmmaking that focus primarily on life’s miseries?
Russian screenwriter Liza Simbirskaya may have found the answer in her 2019 YouTube miniseries “я иду искать” (meaning “Here I come” in Russian), which tells the story of 20-something law student Roma (played by up-and-coming actor Arsen Khandzhyan) falling for his newfound acquaintance Lesha in present day Moscow. As a side story, a female friend of Roma reveals to him that she is HIV positive… but to his disbelief does not make much fuss about it and certainly does not despair. Its nine short episodes focus only a little on dramatic twists and turns or the usual portrayal of the excesses of gay parties, and much more on the fears and joys of a young man finding out who he really is which may be a simple, yet effective, way to normalize homosexuality in these troubled days of homophobia.
Breaking stereotypes without shocking the audience
“Breaking the stereotypes was one of the main purposes of this project. First of all, because I have a lot of queer friends who are all very different from each another, but all of them would like to watch something about themselves. I also think it's my professional method to show people in their everyday life, to find interest in very simple dialogs and situations. I think it helps viewers and myself accept life like it is,” says Simbirskaya.
According to her, choosing to show the gay community – alongside HIV-positive people – in their everyday life was a strategic choice. “Most of [the stories about gay people in Russia] are about different kinds of struggling. So when the director and I were planning our web series, we decided to do it not about the difficulties of queer life in Russia but about the happy life of a young person. We decided to show very ordinary people, very casual outfits, and very ordinary situations. No makeup, no crazy parties, and no extraordinary behaviour, which is often associated here in Russia with the gay community. We wanted to show no difference between queer and not queer people,” Simbirskaya notes. The result is that, unlike many other cases of content that promotes LGBTQ+ narratives, the YouTube comment section of “Here I come” does not anger trolls and puritans.
The hard birth of an internet series
It was far from easy to make “Here I come” happen. The screenwriter remembers how she spent an entire year looking for funding, getting rejections from Russian and foreign art funds alike, until finally she managed to convince a foreign investor to back her project. Then came the problem of popularizing her work. “The old-fashioned media – big newspapers, big movie magazines – doesn't consider a web series a serious movie project, that's why it is difficult to convince them to write a review or even a news report about it. Also, even if they want to write something about "Here I come," they must remember the law which protects children against non-traditional values and must put an age rating of 18+ on such information. So, as you see, it is not very easy,” Simbirskaya shares.
Luckily for her production, in the internet era everyone can be a media channel and the primarily young audience of “Here I come” helped its publicizing by sharing the episodes on Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube. Additionally, bloggers who are part of the LGBTQ+ community in Russia or back it lent their hand to the makers of the show. “Many more people support us, not in the real media but in personal blogs, and that’s more important for me. I am very thankful to them,” Simbirskaya shares.
Inspiring debates, inspiring others
Actually, most of the criticism that the series gets is about the approach of its authors, rather than the theme itself. The general audience finds it hard to digest the unedited one shot-one episode style in which the movie is shot and its ‘mumblecore’ genre that focuses much more on the dialogue and natural on-screen relationships between actors rather than on the camera angles or the story itself. “Not all people understand why actors look like they don't act at all, why dialogs are so primitive, why the plot is so simple. Where is the drama?, they ask,” Simbirskaya exclaims. To her, part of the misunderstanding of the movie comes from the fact that it is the first of its kind in Russia, where issues such as the role of sex in the gay community, or how to talk correctly about another's identity, or about the HIV epidemic are practically non-existent. “We are one of the first people in the narrative arts trying to start a conversation about these issues. It is unusual and maybe that is why for some people, especially for movie critics, it looks like not art but a proclamation, activism. But I think they will change their minds in a few years when there will be a lot of movies like ours.”
Changing the attitudes and opening a window for conversation to other socially engaged artists is one of the missions of Liza Simbirskaya and an engine behind “Here I come.” “I did it to show young directors, producers, and screenwriters that they have not to be afraid to talk about queer people, people of different nations, young people. To show them a viewer's reaction,” she shares. According to her, it is understandable that in the Russian cultural landscape, dominated by state funding which comes with its caveats of not engaging in provocative projects, limits the creative freedom of many talented directors and screenwriters. “This pushes self-censorship, which is one of the most serious problems in Russia, I think. But I hope that as more indie projects are getting shot by young indie filmmakers, many people in the industry will understand that there is no reason to be afraid and there are a lot of opportunities to make a movie without governmental money in the modern world.”
If you ask for acceptance, be ready to accept as well
As to the question why she is fighting such an uphill battle, Simbirskaya says that she just can’t imagine not doing it. “I grew up in a family where it was important to have your opinion, your voice, to take responsibility, and to be aware. My father was in front of the White House when tanks fired upon it in the 1990s. I went to the opposition rally at Pushkinskaya square with him for the first time when I was 14- or 15-years old and then I went to other meetings by myself or with my parents for a long, long time,” the young screenwriter says. Voicing her discontent with the treatment of political prisoners, Pussy Riot, Alexey Navalny, and many other key figures of the Russian opposition has practically become second nature for her and now she is finding new ways to express her social positions through her art. “Freedom and liberty are something I was born with. I would like to be a conformist and less of a fighter for justice, because it's safer and easier, but I can't,” she concludes.
Yet, she does not harbour resentment towards the majority of socially conservative Russians and finds the explanation for their animosity to the “different” in the painful totalitarian history of their country. “When the Iron Curtain fell and Soviet people started to receive information from abroad, they weren’t ready for it. They were against many things that were normal abroad but not acceptable in the USSR. The new generation is the first generation of post-Soviet people who live without any borders thanks to the Internet, free knowledge, and communication between people from different countries. The Russian people have started traveling and looking at the world, getting to know it only in the last 10-15 years. The first time after 70 years of the Iron Curtain! Just imagine this! That is why it is so difficult for Russians to accept new things, to be open-minded, to be tolerant (is it so easy for people all over the world? I don't think so). And that's why it's so important to protect our freedom from new laws which build a wall between Russia and the other world again.”
In addition, Simbirskaya realizes that there is also a huge generational gap that pushes back against progress. “People who are 50-60-70-years old now can't understand their children and grandchildren, can't share their interests, thoughts. But they are still the most powerful people in the world,” she says. To add oil to the fire, the quick but uneven technical progress between rich and poor countries makes it difficult for those who spend their lives in stable, affluent countries to see why people in less fortunate places fear change much more than they do. “We need time to understand how to live together in a new world where you can speak about everything on the Internet and everyone can answer you, or where your private life exists in social media and you depend on other peoples’ reactions to it, and how to be a new generation man when you grew up in a different time with different rules.”
So, how can artists help in this difficult process? Liza Simbirskaya has some advice for the future artists: “Keep going! Shoot the movies about or with queer people, be brave to come out, fight for your rights as activists, or as a filmmaker, or an editor of any kind of magazine. And don't think that people who don't accept queer-community are stupid, close-minded. Try to understand them and to explain to them our truth and accept their truth as well. The most important thing for Russia now is a dialog inside the country. Only together can we take down the homophobic laws and change the situation.”
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