Russian LGBT Film Festival Under Threat

Some of you may be aware of what’s happening with the Side by Side LGBT Film Festival in Russia — if not, be sure to read Marian Evans’ recent article at Wellywood Woman (“Side by Side: To Siberia, With Love”) and follow the festival @sidebysideff for news on developments (and visit the website for the latest news).  The festival is now under severe threat from homophobic groups and has experienced lack of action by police to protect the festival and its attendees.  Read more below in two press releases issued by the festival.

(Posted with permission.)

Authorities in Kemerovo, Siberia side with Ultra Nationalists
Bringing an End and Violence to the III Side by Side by Side LGBT Film Festival.

On 1 June, 2012 human rights Side by Side LGBT film festival, was scheduled to open in the Siberian town of Kemerovo. The third time the festival was to take place in the city, over the course of three days, through to 3rd June screenings and discussions on a range of LGBT issues were planned for. In the run up to the start of the festival, however, organizers began to receive threats of physical violence and attack from a far-right group, the Russian Patriot Club, who are based in a nearby town Novokuznetsk. The group, having already threatened festival visitors at a Side by Side event in March earlier in the year, were reported and made known to the police. The police however failed to act on the information given, taking no measures at all against the group following the March incident.

In the days before the start of the festival, fresh threats were sent by the group and organizers lodged new complaints with the police.  Organizers met with both law enforcement agencies and the city administration. The authorities indicated their unwillingness to provide protection for festival visitors and did everything in their power to make it impossible for the festival to take place. At the meeting a letter from the city’s Mayor Vladimir Mikhailov was handed to Side by Side’s local coordinator. It reads: “This event causes a negative reaction from residents and community organizations. In their letters of address they state that the opening of the festival would violate their rights and lawful interests. With this in mind, we believe that the organization of the Side by Side Film Festival in the city of Kemerovo is undesirable.” Shortly after venues received letters and telephone calls from the administration “recommending” them not to hold the festival on their premises. Fear of the repercussions both venues pulled out two days prior to the festival start.

Only then, once the possibility of holding the festival had been brought to a halt, did the administration and police begin to show interest in the safety of the visitors and organizers. Telephone calls were received from a certain inspector A. A Balmaeva responsible for public order at the Office of Ministry of Internal Affairs affirming that: “We will ensure order during your festival so that no one is injured”, coupled with heated enquiries as to if we had found an alternative. An alternative venue had been found, however, once made known to the authorities within a matter of hours the new venue pulled out.

The authorities have taken no action against the Russian Patriot Club instead choosing to target peaceful and law abiding citizens. The inaction of the police and the administration has only but emboldened far-right elements giving them free reign to terrorize, making death threats and inciting hatred towards both festival organizers and visitors.

In an attempt not to succumb to these forces Side by Side in these extreme conditions managed to hold on Sunday 3rd June a day of screenings and discussions. This however did not go without incident as local Side by Side coordinator was physically attacked by two members of the Russian Patriot Club in the city centre. The attack took place outside the local theatre where people had gathered in order to be taken by bus to an undisclosed location where screenings had been planned. Complaint of the attack was lodged with the police.

In the five years of Side by Side’s existence the festival has often come up against opposition however the degree of physical violence and threat to life being openly expressed by nationalist and orthodox extremist groups and the impotence of the authorities to act on complaints is unprecedented. Action will be pursued in the Russian courts and if justice is not found then to the European Court of Human Rights.

In the next coming days the fortunes of the festival are uncertain.  Two more festivals are set to take place in neighbouring Siberian cities of Novosibirsk, 5-7 June and finally Tomsk, 8 – 10 June, 2012.  Already there are promises of protests from nationalists and orthodox extremists.”

Link to press release:
http://www.bok-o-bok.ru/news.asp?lan=1&tid=763

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Lynch Mob Like Tactics From Homophobic Youths and Inadequate Police Protection Force Side by Side LGBT Film Festival to Cancel the Third and Final Day of the Event in Novosibirsk.

On the second day of the Side by Side LGBT Film Festival in Novosibirsk organizers and audience came under serious threat from a homophobic mob of aggressive youths. The youths, numbering around 30 or so in total, had surrounded the shopping centre where the screening was taking place in a multiplex on the fourth floor of the building.  Prior to the start, during and at the end of the event the youths gathered around the screening hall, shouting insults and it was clear from their discussions with each other and behavior that they were intent on violence.

Organizers of the festival complained multiple times to the police, who were in force but outside the building overseeing a picket in support of the homophobic law that has its second reading in the local Novosibirsk parliament today, 7th June, 2012. The youths, eventually on the request of the police, left the multiplex only to return however within minutes and again begin hassling organizers. This pattern was repeated throughout the entire period of the event. Failing entirely in their duties and the attempt to maintain effective public order and safety the threat of violence and danger to both audience members, volunteers and organizers was imminent.

At 21.00 when the screening came to end the mob of youths had gathered outside the building. Transportation was organized for both audience members and organizers. Security guards escorted visitors of the festival to their awaiting cars and taken away safely. Last to leave were the festival organizers. An attempt was made to smash the rear passenger window of the taxi. The youths had organized cars and a motorcycle to follow the organizers and police took no measures to stop their pursuit.  It was only the high speed driving skills of the taxi driver that the organizers were able to escape without being followed.

In a conversation with festival director Gulya Sultanova, one of the police heads stated: “Why have you circulated information about your festival? I don’t plan to be here tomorrow and protect you.”

Police indifference and their lack of concern to protect peaceful, lawabiding citizens from violent thugs has forced the festival organizers to cancel today’s screening out of reasons of safety.

The Novosibirsk film festival is the second of three to take place this week in Siberia. Last weekend the festival came up against the similar problems in the city of Kemerovo (http://bok-o-bok.ru/news.asp?lan=1&tid=763)

The final festival is to be held in the city of Tomsk 8 – 10 June, 2012.  In 2011 the festival in Tomsk was banned by the authorities. It remains uncertain what the forecast will be for tomorrow’s opening. Organizers are monitoring the situation and have already increased security at the opening.”

Link to press release:
http://www.bok-o-bok.ru/news.asp?lan=1&tid=767

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Keep track of developments by following Side by Side LGBT Film Festival @sidebysideff and visiting the website.

Read Marian Evans’ article about this issue at Wellywood Woman (“Side by Side:  To Siberia, With Love”)

Help take action to prevent the onslaught of homophobic legislation currently being introduced in Russia.  Check out the Side by Side page for all the ways you can help!

And be sure to tweet this out to your friends and contacts!  We can stand in solidarity with the film festival by sharing information and taking action whenever possible.

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Toronto International Film Festival – part II

ACQUA (2011)

Written & Directed by Raha Shirazi

Country: Canada / Italy

Language: No dialogue

Raha Shirazi’s ACQUA was part of the Short Cuts Programme dedicated to screening Canadian films.  Shirazi is no stranger to the Toronto International Film Festival, having brought her film Four Walls to the fest in 2007.   Beginning with a woman (Shirazi) walking, we see that she passes through what seems to be a variety of climates.  She wears simple clothes, and it’s obviously modern day, but where is she going?  Eventually she comes to a river and wades in with a large glass bottle.  It’s raining as she goes further and further into the river, finally stopping when the water is almost to her waist.  The color palette is very effective, with muted, cool tones.  Her character dunks the bottle into the water and lets it fill up, then repeats her trek to the river in reverse.  Only in the final few seconds of the film are we shown why she did it.  Her mother has died and she must return to her home with water to wash the body.  When she enters her home, the color palette changes to warm, golden tones.  Her face and her mother’s body are illuminated by the flames flickering in the fireplace as Shirazi’s character soaks her scarf in the water and rubs her mother’s arms, hands….  A poignant moment.

In the Q&A following the shorts program, Shirazi revealed that in her own cultural tradition (Iranian) this is something that is done when people die — they wash down the bodies before burial.  And, she added, it’s also something that she did when her own mother died a few years ago.  I found this incredibly touching as well as courageous of her to put herself into a character experiencing the same thing she had to face a few years prior.  It is a beautifully shot film which takes its time and allows the audience to explore its meaning.

UNION SQUARE (2011)

Directed by Nancy Savoca

Screenplay by Nancy Savoca & Mary Tobler

Country: USA

Language: English

I’ll be honest and say firstly that Nancy Savoca’s work is one reason why I’m a filmmaker.  It’s one reason why I write, it’s one reason why I love movies, it’s one reason why film is my passion.  My appreciation of Savoca all started with her 1993 film Household Saints, a perennial favorite of mine for myriad reasons.  So, I was ecstatic to be able to snag a ticket to the screening of her newest film, UNION SQUARE, which she co-wrote with Mary Tobler.    This was a very challenging film for me for a few reasons:  the characters were so well developed that they seemed like real people (complete with painful flaws & haunted pasts), it was claustrophobic (taking place almost exclusively in one place, a New York City apartment), and it was shot in various places throughout as an almost docu-style drama.

The story revolves around two estranged sisters, both of whom are trying to escape their personal pain.  One of them is played by Mira Sorvino, whose character embraces her “Bronx-ness,” has an affair with a married man (she’s married, too), which we find out through overheard phone conversations and some dialogue, and who drinks and wears loud clothing to call attention to her “assets.”  The other sister is played by Tammy Blanchard whose character is very much on the straight and narrow, but she has lied to her fiance about her past (he thinks she’s from Maine) and has hidden her personal history of drug abuse and a mentally ill mother.  When Sorvino’s character “Lucy” hits the city and drops by (after three years of the sisters not speaking or seeing each other), an emotional bomb is dropped on “Jenny” (Blanchard).

Despite the excellent performances, the naturalistic acting, the incredibly effective direction, this film put me on edge more than any I’ve seen since Jim Sheridan’s 2009 film Brothers.   I could feel my heart start to beat faster and my blood pressure rise as I watched.  It was stressful.  It was real.  It felt like some of the worst, most emotionally wrenching moments of my life.  I left feeling confused, emotionally exhausted and with the realization that as together as I think my life is, none of us is really that far away from the emotional trauma explored in UNION SQUARE.  But that’s exactly what makes this film so good.  It’s a film that you can ruminate on and endlessly explore.  This isn’t something I realized in the theatre, or the day after, or the week after, but I finally got to it.

The Q&A following the screening included director/co-writer Nancy Savoca, co-writer Mary Tobler, producers Neda Armian and Richard Guay, and supporting actor Mike Doyle.  Savoca revealed that all of her first choices for actors said “yes,” including the legendary Patti Lupone (mother to “Jenny” and “Lucy”) and Michael Rispoli (“Nick,” husband to “Lucy,” who also starred in Savoca’s Household Saints).  It was filmed in Richard Guay’s (Savoca’s life & business partner) apartment in New York City.  From what I heard, it seemed almost like a charmed production.

THE GOOD SON (2011)

(“Hyvä poika”)

Directed by Zaida Bergroth

Screenplay by Zaida Bergroth & Jan Forrsström

Country: Finland

Language: Finnish

Zaida Bergroth is a genius director.  According to imdb.com, this is her ninth directorial effort and third feature film.  While I’ve not heard of Bergroth before, I took the opportunity I had while attending TIFF to not only see women-directed films, but also to see films by non-North American directors.  Bergroth is Finnish, though that does not have much to do with the story.  THE GOOD SON is about an aging movie star who is a single mother raising two sons, one probably around 18 or 19, the other around 10.   A weekend in the country trying to get away from vile press coverage turns into “Leila” (the mother, played by Elina Knihtilä,) desperately needing attention from a man.  While her oldest son “Ilmari,” (played by newcomer Samuli Niittymäki), serves as her fierce protector, no matter the problems this “new guy,” presents, “Leila,” is often confused and bewildered, switching sides between the weekend fling and her own son on whom she depends for her safety and constant affirmation.

Events escalate and turn violent between the two men after “Ilmari’s” girlfriend tells him a lie about “Leila’s” man attacking her.   While the man himself is guilty for a few rash decisions to become physical against “Ilmari,” the situation becomes even more violent when “Ilmari” tries to not only protect his mother, but himself and their life together as a mother and two sons.  The man accuses “Ilmari,” of living in a sick situation (implying that there is some type of serious co-dependence, or worse, attraction between him and his own mother).  This enrages “Ilmari,” who nearly beats the man to death as his mother sleeps upstairs.  When she awakes, she realizes the horror of what her son has done and secretly helps the man to alert the neighbors.  Talking to her son, we can see she is shaken, but on one level has some type of residual allegiance to her son.  However, as her son rests his head on her lap to sleep for awhile, thinking he’s done the right thing by attacking the man, “Leila” waits for the police to arrive, knowing that she must finally let her son go.

I had no idea what to expect from this film.  I’ve never seen a Finnish film and did not know if there were typical conventions present in the film — perhaps I’ll have to see more Finnish films to understand the broader cultural context of THE GOOD SON as a work of art.  In the end, it’s a solid film which explores the mother-child relationship, teen angst, responsibility thrust upon children, and ultimately, the freedom to defend oneself against a threat.  Definitely a suspense thriller, Bergroth takes her time to develop the story, so simple on the surface, but so dark and complex as she peels away the layers.

BACK TO STAY (2011)

(“Abrir Puertas y Ventanas”)

Written & Directed by Milagros Mumenthaler

Country: Argentina / Switzerland / Netherlands

Language: Spanish

By the time I saw this film I was not keen to sit through another 90 minutes of virtually no dialogue and a story that develops at a snail’s pace.  Only in the days following the screening am I beginning to process it and understand the characters.  Director Milagros Mumenthaler has won some prestigious awards for this film, and I would love to sit down with some of those film festival juries to understand what they saw and why they feel it’s important.  That’s not to say that I do not see the importance of the film, though, but I would like to hear other people’s thoughts on it.

It’s a quiet film, almost painfully so, about three sisters who live in a house together which was recently also occupied by their grandmother (deceased about a year).  It seems as their relationships are extremely strained, each young woman with quite different personalities.  They seem to live in a type of purgatory where little happens, but they are inextricably tied not just as sisters but also as inhabitants of a house where their grandmother’s ghost seems to always be hovering.  The furniture is dated, the dresser drawers are still full of her clothes, the girls use a vibrating/bouncing bed that must have been such the rage when first purchased.  You feel as if you are living their lives, resigned to a life of boredom and uncertainty, completely blindsided when the youngest girl decides to leave with a boyfriend neither of her sisters knew she had.  What is to happen to them all?  Do they care about each other? Why don’t they show it?  There are scars you can only see in the moments of silence shared between them.

WHERE DO WE GO NOW? (2011)

(“Et maintenant, on va où?”)

Directed by Nadine Labaki

Screenplay by Rodney Al Haddid, Thomas Bidegain (collaboration), Jihad Hojeily, Nadine Labaki

Country: Lebanon / France / Egypt / Italy

Language: Arabic, French

About once a year, I see a film that makes me fall in love with film all over again.  I discover the magic that it provides, the exploration it challenges us with, the joy it can reveal in simple moments.  Nadine Labaki’s WHERE DO WE GO NOW? is just such a film.  I’m in love.  A small village in Lebanon made up of half Muslims, half Christians, that has lived in peace for many years, is suddenly turned on its head when an accident spurs a hatred between the two religious groups.  The village’s women take it upon themselves to counterract the violence and animosity that develops between the men of the village, resulting in a riotous series of schemes to get them to forget about their differences.

I will stop here and not go further as I think everyone should see this film, and it is filled with so many joyous little surprises and twists that to write about it would only spoil it.  But I will say that the rhythm of the film, the music used, the structure of the story, and the direction itself, are so effective that it is easy, if not also dangerous, to lose oneself in the film.  Why dangerous?  The beauty of the film and the inspirational story is tempered with the reality of war and the death of a child.  This film made me laugh over and over again, dream of a better world, had my heart soaring at the beauty of film and the love with which Labaki has treated the story and its inhabitants, but it also made me cry bitterly at the reality that exists on a daily basis.  You will be deeply moved by this film.

I am happy to say as well that Nadine Labaki won the Toronto International Film Festival Cadillac People’s Choice Award for this film, which is the top prize of TIFF, a non-competitive festival (no juries to judge films!)  It deserves it, and her winning this prestigious award is a testament to her craftsmanship and the beauty she has captured on film.

Sony Pictures Classics has just picked up this film for U.S. distribution.  I can’t wait to see it in theatres.