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'If we were stopped by the authorities, we feared we could have been jailed or fined'

A new Irish documentary looks at the crackdown on LGBT+ rights in Russia. We spoke to its director.

Image: Shutterstock/Alexandros Michailidis

WHEN IRISH FILMMAKER Paul Rice and his partner Liam Jackson Montgomery left their home in San Francisco to head for a trip to Russia, they had a few unusual things to do first.

They made sure to get a photo of Rice with Jackson Montgomery’s sister, so he could pretend if asked by authorities that they were a couple. Facebook names and details were also changed so that it wasn’t obvious the men were partners. Their plan on the outside looked like a tour of six cities along the Trans-Siberian railway – but in reality they were visiting the country to film what life is like for members of the LGBT+ community in Russia.

It was a journey fraught with nerves for them, but the pair were even more conscious of how difficult it is to live in Russia and be a gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender person.

In 2013, a new law banning ‘gay propaganda’ furthered the social and legal pressure put on people in Russia. 

Human Rights Watch said of the situation

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth in Russia face formidable barriers to enjoying their fundamental rights to dignity, health, education, information, and association. In Russia, antipathy towards homosexuality and gender variance is not new—LGBT people there have long faced threats, bullying, abuse inside their families, and discrimination—but the 2013 “gay propaganda” law has increased that social hostility. The law has also had a stifling effect on access to affirming education and support services, with harmful consequences for LGBT youth.

Rice and Jackson Montgomery’s travels were to film what became A Worm In The Heart, a documentary that will air this weekend (Saturday 6 March) at the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival (VMDIFF).

‘They’re just trying to live their lives’

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

Rice told TheJournal.ie that they wanted to capture the “human dimension” to the news stories about the crackdown on LGBT+ rights in Russia. 

“And that’s what this film was really trying to be about: these people aren’t gay propaganda, for example, they’re literally just trying to live their lives,” he said. The documentary follows as they travel to six cities in Russia and Siberia, speaking to people about their lives.

It was the marriage equality referendum in 2015 that really got Rice thinking about how people’s lives are elsewhere.

“It was a really great moment, I felt very lucky,” he recalled. “In the lead up to that referendum, I watched [the media coverage] like a hawk.” He found himself wondering about same-sex marriage laws in other countries.

And Russia is infamous for how terrible it is towards the LGBT community. And I really came to grips with that back then in 2015, and then a year later, my partner and I, we moved to San Francisco. And we ended up living in the Castro, which is the gayest part of the most LGBT-friendly city in the world.

He realised, while living in the US home of LGBT+ activism, what a lucky position he was in. “And I just felt like I wanted to do something that could help. That could help maybe further the conversation or change some hearts, or just give a greater voice to people.”

Rice and Jackson Montgomery felt the pressure of having to pretend they were in Russia for purposes other than making the documentary.

“It was very intimidating. As a gay person, I think a lot of queer people, and probably other people as well have felt this, that you might go on a holiday, to a foreign country, or even just go somewhere that you don’t know fully and you go, ‘can I be myself? Like, should I edit myself a bit? Should I act a bit straighter? Should I should I just dampen this down a bit for my own safety?’.

“It becomes a second nature for you, you’ve always acted that way, since you’re a kid of shielding who you are, just protecting yourself. Which is difficult, and I think preparing for this trip in Russia, it was that times 10.”

They were worried that “legally, we were on the line here – if we were stopped by authorities, if they went through our footage, we could have been jailed, and fined”.

They both felt a lot of emotions – one of which was guilt, as they realised they knew they could return home. “We’re going over to meet with people who, this is very much so their lives, they’re putting their lives at risk to meet with us.”

‘Horrifically sad’

There are various groups which work for and with the LGBT+ community across Russia. and before travelling over, the pair reached out to the LGBT Network. Through them, they were able to arrange interviews.

They did not bring a translator, in order to have as small a crew as possible, and only used very small cameras. Usually interviewees would bring a friend who had English, to act as a sort of translator. The documentary shows how some of the advocacy groups are based in anonymous offices, so as not to draw attention.

The interview process could be a difficult one. “I think I oftentimes was horrifically sad for them,” said Rice, who would offer to stop the interview if it was too difficult.  

“Safety is always an issue,” he added. “A lot of these people are really risking a lot to talk to us.”

Some of the interviews were with trans women. “No matter where you are in the world, trans people are often the most vulnerable people in that society,” said Rice. “And that’s not different in Russia, trans people go through so much in Russia.” 

They could pretend to be someone that they’re not and get by and get work. But unfortunately, for a lot of trans people in Russia, they are very visible, they’re visibly trans and they can’t mask who they are quite often, which leads to so much more violence and being ostracised from families and apartment buildings.

One of the interviewees, Eugenia (who later changed her name to Maya), even “spoke almost comically and lightheartedly about being assaulted, and then going into the police and they just laughed at her”.

“And that’s a really common thing in Russia,” said Rice. “I think the number is one in six LGBT Russians will be violently assaulted each year. But that number is likely to be way higher, because most people just don’t bother reporting it because police will do nothing.” 

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Western values

The documentary opens with quotes from a pro-propaganda law discussion, in which there is a particular emphasis on Western influence in Russia. This idea of LGBT+ rights being Western values is something which the documentary explores. 

Rice said they didn’t want to be “beating our chests in a way and going over as Western saviours that know everything”.

“Because as we’ve also seen with other massive geopolitical issues like Brexit, or Trump, public opinion can really sway one way and then go right back to the other direction. So it’s always important to remember where we came from, in many ways, with LGBT+ rights and human rights in general.”

The documentary highlights the massive social changes Ireland has experienced in recent years, such as the 2015 marriage equality referendum. 

“I hope people realise that Ireland’s come a long way. But it’s happened quite quickly and not too long ago. And so [we should] just always keep an eye on our rights and on greater human rights. What happens to LGBT+ people can easily happen to any other minority group, like asylum seekers, or religious minorities.”

But Rice did note that over the past couple of years, there have been mass protests in Russia in support of LGBT+ rights. ”That is huge,” he said. “Just the mere fact that so many Russians are taking to the streets, and rebelling against the government is huge.”

He hopes this is a sign of change. “I think quite often change has a snowball effect.”

He said that the people he spoke to were very heartened by seeing protests globally in support of LGBT+ people in Russia.

“I do remain hopeful that LGBT+ Russians will find and acquire greater rights. I think it will be a very long journey,” said Rice.

“No matter what, governments come and go, leaders come and go, but LGBT+ people always be in Russia. And I do think that whenever there is a crack or chink in the armour, they’ll go for it, they’re very organised, they’re very strong.

“And they’re very smart. And I think that they will achieve greater rights in the future.”

A Worm In The Heart will be shown at the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival on 6 March at 4pm. Tickets are available here and the VMDIFF programme is available here 

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