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The Russian LGBT Rights Documentary Everybody Should Watch

By Ronan Doyle | /Bent February 7, 2014 at 8:04AM

Perhaps the scenes in Sochi this month, as citizens celebrate their city’s hosting of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, will start out similarly to those of Mr. Propaganda, a Russian documentary steadily clawing a reputation on the international LGBT festival circuit. Perhaps the people, driven by their love for sport and country, will be as passionate as those depicted in Vladimir Ivanov’s film, activists on the streets of Moscow campaigning for their right to host a pride parade. Perhaps there will be an atmosphere of union—that great idyll embodied in the iconic Olympic rings—akin to that seen in the movie’s earliest moments. Perhaps, with any luck, it will not similarly be shattered by brutal, bloody assault.
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Mr Propoganda

Perhaps the scenes in Sochi this month, as citizens celebrate their city’s hosting of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, will start out similarly to those of Mr. Propaganda, a Russian documentary steadily clawing a reputation on the international LGBT festival circuit. Perhaps the people, driven by their love for sport and country, will be as passionate as those depicted in Vladimir Ivanov’s film, activists on the streets of Moscow campaigning for their right to host a pride parade. Perhaps there will be an atmosphere of union—that great idyll embodied in the iconic Olympic rings—akin to that seen in the movie’s earliest moments. Perhaps, with any luck, it will not similarly be shattered by brutal, bloody assault.

This is a film that everyone ought to watch once, and that nobody will likely be able to take twice. Ivanov’s is an extraordinary document, a pseudo-sequel of sorts to his Berlinale-premiered Moscow Pride ’06, shaped from a wealth of material he has shot in the years since. But where that film featured no shortage of dissent toward the capital’s first pride parade, the Russia it showcases seems a veritable gay haven compared to the startling vision Mr. Propaganda offers. Ivanov charts a course through a near-decade of increasing anti-gay sentiment, culminating of course in last year’s enactment of a bill outlawing the “promotion” of “non-traditional” sexualities to children.

Those turned from their screens by the images of assaults featured in the Human Rights Watch video gaining social media traction in recent days will do well to avoid Ivanov’s film, which abounds with astonishing footage in alarming detail of peaceful protests beset by punches. Worse still are the instances, far from scarce especially as the film approaches the present, in which police stand idly by as the inevitable on-the-ground consequences of homophobic legislation come to fruition. To read that hate crime is on the rise in Russia since the bill’s enactment is troubling; to see it, in the direct gaze of Ivanov’s camera, is terrifying.

The stories we hear—those stories we so rarely, if ever, see—reach us like word from some distant dystopia. And it’s tempting in a way, perhaps even comforting, to think of it as so: a hyperbolic distortion of reality, an overly exaggerated image of the outcome of the new legislation. “It’s a fairy tale,” Stephen Fry was told of these stories by Vitaly Milonov—the bill’s primary proponent—in his BBC documentary series Out There; he and his country have worked hard to make it seem so. Ivanov’s film, its DVDs’ passage out of the country through customs up in the air each time, is overwhelming and appalling evidence that the situation is, if anything, even worse than the imagination painted it. 

Yet for all the agonising instances of aggression the film chronicles and captures, for every painful punch it witnesses making contact, perhaps the single most powerful moment it contains is that in which Nikolay Alexeyev, the documentary’s central activist and the man responsible for the European Court of Human Rights’ 2010 ruling against Russia’s pride parade bans, explodes in anger mid-debate and demands that the outside world ostensibly intent on helping his cause recognise that the only way to do so is to refuse to cooperate with a country that relegates certain citizens to second-class status.

Like Fry’s effort to democratically debate, like Obama’s intent in sending openly gay delegates to be defiantly diplomatic, like Alexeyev’s attempt to elsewhere overrule, Mr. Propaganda succeeds in showing anything short of direct disengagement with a discriminative state to be essentially a form of active appeasement. This extraordinary film, this harrowing and horrifying and hate-ridden film, offers ample evidence of the progress that comes with such passive protest. Perhaps the scenes in Sochi this month will play out without incident. At least as the participants—the athletes, the delegates, the viewers—part ways and head home, their backs will be turned on the actions they have enabled.

Watch a preview of the film below: