Dr. Vitaly Chernetsky of the University of Kansas, an expert on Russian Cinema with an interest in LGBT and gender studies, disagrees.
"As someone who is originally from the former Soviet Union, things in Russia look very bleak indeed at the moment," he said.
He brought up the recent scandal concerning the Tchaikovsky biopic currently in production. After much back and forth with the film's screenwriter, it became clear that director Kirill Serebrennikov would not shy away from the composer's historically accurate orientation. The film received an initial promise of funding from state agency Cinema Fund, but then had its installment refused. Serebrennikov and his producer, Sabina Eremeyeva, announced they would look for funding abroad.
Chernetsky could recall only three other Russian films in recent years that had gay themed subject matter. "You I Love" (2003) was an international festival/art-house hit but received no serious domestic distribution. "Far from Sunset Boulevard" (2006) played in theaters in France but was refused domestic distribution in Russia. The film's out gay director, Igor Minaev, has since emigrated to France. "Veselchaki" ("Jolly Fellows," 2009) was a film about drag queens intended for the domestic audience, but, as Chernetsky pointed out, features a very disturbing ending: all five main characters are murdered by homophobes but reunite in heaven. It did not do well in theaters.
Chernetsky said that gay characters have occasionally appeared on Russian TV in recent years, but as comic or villainous stereotypes. Since the gay propaganda law passed, he said, there has been only one gay character on Russian television in a mini-series called "The Thaw," a "Mad Men" like drama set in the 1960s Soviet film industry.
"It was quite shocking that it was broadcast on Russia's state-owned Channel 1," Chernetsky said. "It shows that the old Russian saying that 'the severity of Russian laws is compensated by inconsistency of their application' rings true. The laws are applied just enough to create an atmosphere of fear."
It is that atmosphere of fear, he said that keeps filmmakers from taking any chances.
"Overall, the main problem is self-censorship resulting from this fear and the invisibility of positive gay role models in public," he said. "There was an actual lesbian and gay culture developing slowly but surely for about 15 years, from the time of the repeal of the sodomy laws in 1993 until a few years ago, and now it has been unceremoniously forced back into the closet."
As an ideologically tinged war epic, "Stalingrad" presumably had no problems receiving its state funding, though that's not to say the film didn't encounter its own controversy. A Change.org petition to ban the film in Russia was introduced. It objected to the film's empathetic portrayal of the Nazi character played by Thomas Kretschmann and also resented the romantic relationship between his and Studilina's characters. Bondarchuk said that World War II is a somewhat sacred subject in Russian filmmaking.
"It is very difficult and dangerous to touch it," he said. "Even amongst the youngest audience who are free and open to everything and new tech and so on, if you touch World War II, the war of the great fatherland, they become conservative." They screened "Stalingrad" for Russian veterans in the same city, now called Volgograd.
"I was so, so afraid of this screening," Bondarchuk said, but he insisted that audiences are changing so much, that the time had come for a new approach, and the Veterans reacted well.
"The theme of romantic link between a Russian woman and German soldier is really politically incorrect, even still today," Studilina said. "But I think that love can transcend religions, nations, language, politics, any barrier."
Let’s hope that for Russia, that sentiment will one day include gender and sexual orientation.
"Stalingrad" opens in the U.S. on February 28. This article was originally posted on Indiewire earlier this week.