When the organizers of the Side by Side LGBT film festival in St. Petersburg invited me to serve on the festival jury, I agreed right away. It was the year that gay propaganda laws were passed, and LGBT issues had taken center stage in the culture wars in Russia. I’m not an expert on cinema, and I’m not a member of the LGBT community. But given what has been happening in Russia, the festival had become a political event, and being involved in it was a clear way of expressing my civic stance.

Co-organizer Gulya Sultanova told me, “Almost all the movie theaters [the festival approached] decided to support the film festival this time, despite the potential risks. And that’s worth a lot.” I found it difficult to share Gulya’s optimism. I was certain that attempts would be made to disrupt the festival, and that trouble lay in store for organizers and festivalgoers.

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A Dangerous Opening

Police got word of a bomb threat to the movie theater several minutes before the festival’s opening ceremony at the Warsaw Express shopping and entertainment complex. While police combed the building for a bomb, festivalgoers socialized outside in the chilly wind.

“There are homophobes on the corner. They’re really creepy.”

A gang of big skinheads gathered a few meters away from us. As Gulya later explained, these were nationalists from an organization called Soprotivlenie (Resistance). One female moviegoer standing next to me was visibly nervous.

“Now they’ll start throwing rocks at us, like during the [LGBT] rally at the Field of Mars. Now they’re going to fire air guns at us!”

Among the gay activists was Dmitry Chizhevsky, with a black bandage on his face. He had recently been attacked at an LGBT community center where he’d been shot in the eye with an air gun.

Side by Side organizers asked festivalgoers not to wander off by themselves.

Five Bomb Threats over Ten Days

On five separate ocassions, the police received false threats that bombs had been planted at Side by Side festival venues. Loft Project ETAGI Art Center and Jam Hall Cinema were each threatened once, and the Skorokhod cultural center, twice.

The police and an ambulance came each time, and everyone was evacuated from the buildings where the alleged bombs had been planted. At ETAGI, the staff, hostel guests, and the patrons of its cafés, bars, and shops were kicked out onto the street along with LGBT activists.

The people responsible for the false bomb threats were never found.

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Side by Side co-organizer Manny de Guerre: “No venue will ever work with us again.”

Manny’s worries were justified. After the bomb threats, both the Zona Deistviya co-working space at ETAGI and Jam Hall Cinema terminated their agreements with Side by Side for the remaining screenings.

One day, the festival program was disrupted entirely. No screenings were held, and a discussion entitled “Young People’s Freedom to Access Information on LGBT Issues” was canceled.

Lena Klimova, a journalist and founder of the internet project Children 404, an online community for LGBT teenagers on Facebook and VKontakte, was supposed to take part in the discussion. She had traveled hundreds of miles for the festival.

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Lena Klimova: “In our city, many people don’t even know the word LGBT.”

Lesbiana

At Side by Side, I noticed that the LGBT community was not free of sexism, either. Spotting my jury member badge, one young gay man asked me what movies I would be voting for. Hearing that I had chosen Blue Is the Warmest Color and Lesbiana: A Parallel Revolution, he said, “Those films are so boring. And lesbian sex is disgusting to watch.”

Most of the films shown at Side by Side were shot by male directors and dealt with gay love. Lesbiana was the only feature film at the festival made by women about women. The screening room was half-empty: the men did not attend.

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After-Party at the Malevich LGBT Club

Sitting among gays and lesbians at a private LBGT club, I mulled over my impressions of the festival. I had felt frightened several times during the clashes with homophobes, and I felt glad to be heterosexual. I would not be forced to live my entire life in a constant state of anxiety.

Toward the end of the festival, Gulya Sultanova said, “We’re just a festival, but it feels like we’re running a military operation.”

LGBT activists are just people. Why must they live as if they were invisible or criminals?

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