The ‘dire’ plight of gay activists in Belarus, where there is no protection of LGBT rights at all, is the subject of a documentary, East Bloc Love, showing at the Melbourne Queer Film Festival tomorrow.
Gay Star News speaks to Australian filmmaker Logan Mucha about why he decided gay rights in Eastern Europe should be the focus of his first feature film, what happened when activists tried to hold a Pride march in Belarus and how the KGB are trying, unconvincingly, to infiltrate gay rights groups.
Where did you get the idea for East Bloc Love?
East Bloc Love was my first feature documentary. I started filming it when I was 23. I was overseas for eight months filming then it took me about four or five months fulltime to edit.
Two years before I made the film I traveled through Eastern Europe on holiday with my boyfriend. And we were just interested to see that the whole gay scene there was so underground. Even to go to a gay bar you had to walk down an alleyway and knock on a door and a security guard would come and take you in. I found that really fascinating, especially coming from Australia.
I decided to take a year off from studying and just go over there and start exploring why gay people were so invisible in Eastern Europe.
What did you find out?
There are so many different reasons depending on what country you’re in. It still seems like a hangover from the Soviet occupation, or some of the countries are so extremely Catholic or very right wing orthodox and just the mind set over there. Everyone was still so conservative and because they were such relatively poor countries compared to Western Europe the idea of talking about gay rights was just so low on the radar, compared to talking about economic stability or any of these other things.
What countries did you go to?
We went to six countries and five ended up being in the film. It mostly focuses on Belarus. That’s where the main story sets off from. Then we go to Poland, Romania, Latvia and Estonia.
What's life like for gay people in those countries?
All the countries apart from Belarus are part of the EU. And by being accepted into the European Union, they had to set protocols in terms of gay rights, but how much they are actually enforced is an entirely different story.
In Belarus, which is kind of like a subsidiary to Russia, homosexual ‘propaganda’ is illegal, these people have no rights, it’s impossible to form organisations, it’s illegal to have any marches or protest for gay rights.
Belarus is just literally the most depressing place I’ve been to in terms of gay rights. They have no support. The European Union can’t touch them. It’s just a really dire situation that they’re in at the moment.
Who did you meet in Belarus?
The main story starts in Belarus where we met an activist called Sergey Yenin, at the time he was only 20. He was one of the main organisers of Gay Belarus, which was an illegal gay activist group who worked out of a small apartment on the outskirts of the city. The got some grants from some organisations in the Netherlands, but they were illegal in their country.
The whole film revolved around them trying to put on their first gay pride in Belarus, which was absolutely horrible the way it turned out. They put in a lot of applications for a march and the local authorities kept denying them permission for stupid reasons, like the march was too near a metro station, or this that and the other. They kept providing alternate routes of where it was going to go but they kept getting turned down.
In the end they held their Pride march anyway with about 25 activists. Including some who’d come down from the Gay Russia organisation in Moscow. And the march lasted about five minutes before the police came and arrested everyone.
Are the activists lives in danger in Belarus? Did you ever feel frightened when you were making the film?
I was the most fearful I’ve ever been in my life. We literally spent two and a half/three weeks with this organisation. It was scary because the KGB still exists in Belarus. They haven’t even changed their name. It turned out that one person who came into the organisation while we were there filming was there from the KGB, monitoring them. It sounds like something from an old James Bond spy novel but this guy infiltrated the organisation and passed on the details, which is how their Pride march got stopped so quickly.
It was really weird because this guy came along saying he wanted to do music for the festival week. We kept thinking, ‘why is this guy trying to do music when there’s not really an event that requires music?’ He didn’t talk much and everyone had their scepticism about him. The good thing is that a lot of conversations were held without him there. A lot of people clicked on to the fact he might not be exactly who he said he was. He had a girlfriend as well. It was very strange for someone just to jump on board and want to be supportive. His motives were very unclear.
The other thing is that a lot of people inside the organisation have been approached by the KGB and asked to be recruited to get information for them.
Everyone’s extremely fearful. You can’t go out on the street and say you’re gay. There’s only one gay club in the city and it’s on the outskirts and you have to know where to go. It’s impossible to be open there. The police, wider society just don’t accept it and don’t understand it.
Will your film be shown in the countries you filmed in?
It was May 2009 in May when I filmed the march in Belarus, and last year I went back for their Pride week. They rented out a conference room there, with security and they never announced it publicly, but they had what they call a festival. They had a conference and then played my movie. It was really exciting for all the people in the film to watch themselves. It was a really weird surreal moment when everyone couldn’t believe that they were subjects of this feature documentary.
It screened at a film festival in northern UK [Rainbow Film Festival, Shropshire] and they paid for Sergey to go out and speak at the film festival, and he’d never been to Western Europe before so it was really exciting. And now the film’s being screened at Amnesty International Film Festival next month in The Netherlands are they’re flying him out again for that. It’s really exciting to know that somebody from Belarus is actually going to speak to people at the screening. So that’s been a really positive outcome from the film.
The whole point of the film is to give some media attention to this subject, because the media in Belarus don’t give them any exposure. So I like fact that now somebody from the organisation is able to go over and talk at these festival and give them an inside account. That exactly what I aimed to do but never thought was going to happen.
What's your next project?
There’s a few on the go. Last year I went over to Moscow for Moscow Pride and started work on a documentary about Nikolai Alekseev who’s the head of Gay Russia. I started working on his biography but it’s a very slow process because so much as happened since with the anti-propaganda bill that’s been passed St Petersburg and other places. So there’s so much more story to cover which I haven’t been able to do yet.
I’m also working on a new feature documentary which is all these short stories from around the world which connect into one narrative, which is actually going to be called The Last Gay Thing I Ever Do. I promised it will be the last gay activist documentary I make for a while. After three documentaries I feel it might be time to explore some other issues, but I’m still very passionate about it.
I’ll hopefully go out next year and pitch to local broadcasters for funding and be able to go out and make my own documentaries, with funding for the first time!
Watch the trailer for East Bloc Love here: