“Sure it would be nice if a gay filmmaker would have made this Russian LGBT-film. But they didn’t. So I did.”
In 2013 a ‘gay propaganda’ ban was introduced in Russia, prohibiting any positive portrayal of homosexuality. And just earlier this year, the prominent LGBT-rights activist Yelena Grigoryeva, was murdered in St. Petersburg. Being able and courageous enough to produce an LGBT-film in Moscow in these circumstances, made the crew behind ‘Outlaw’ more than eligible to be competing in this year’s Black Nights Rebels with a Cause Competition.
In the film, we are taken along on a few different stories. One of them takes place in present day Moscow, with school boy Nikita (Viktor Tarasenko) discovering his sexuality and falling for his tough-acting, alpha-man classmate (Gleb Kalyuzhnyy). A second story takes place in 1985: we follow the tragic love story of a transgender dancer Nina (Evgeny Shwartzman) and a Soviet general (Vitaly Kudryavtsev). Making Outlaw the first transgender film ever in Russia.
But Outlaw is not only about LGBT-rights and the fight and struggles of this minority, says director Ksenia Ratushnaya: ‘It is about all people that live truly to themselves, on the fringes of society.’ As is confirmed by a third character, known only by her own given name Outlaw, who is constantly creating her own dream-reality amidst the trauma’s she has suffered in real life. We sat down with Ratushnaya, and some of her cast and crew to talk about the filming process.
How did you piece together the story of the Soviet general and his transgender dancer girlfriend? Were there any such stories to be found in real Russian history books?
Ratushnaya: ‘The story is not based on any true story, and it’s extremely hard to find evidence of such stories in recent Russian history. Although, of course, they exist. I did do loads of research and found one book that discussed LGBT-history in Russia extensively: Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia: The Regulation of Sexual and Gender Dissent by Dan Healy. And I also read the biography of Prince Felix Felixovich Yusupov, the man who killed Rasputin. He was a famous cross-dresser and bisexual.
Actually: the 20thcentury has been one of the worst for LGBT-people. Before that, it was quite normal to have sexual relations with either of the sexes and up until the 1920’s – which was one of the most accepting decades – there weren’t many disputes. It was quite fashionable, for example, for men and women alike to hook up with sailors who had just arrived back from their trips and were in town for a few days.
Back then, sexuality was a matter of the church, not the government. When socialism started to gain momentum, though, LGBT-people were starting to get prosecuted by law. There are almost no records of transgender people in the 20th century, because they were literary erased from the system. Authorities arrested them, put them in a mental asylum and more often than not; they had to undergo questionable and torturous therapies. My hope is for the stories of these people to come to light more.’
Was it difficult to find Russian actors, willing to portray LGBT-characters?
Ratushnaya: ‘Yes it was. We first asked several gay actors in Russia if they would like to come to the casting, but none of them was willing. Their reasoning was that they are already gay, so playing in a gay film would even more marginalise and out them. Almost all of the non-gay actors who were enthusiastic about the film, were afraid that they wouldn’t be able to portray a gay character. Once we had found one of our leads, he backed down just 9 days before the start of shooting. A rhinestone -embellished dress was already made to his exact size. Why he dropped out? He refused to get his eyebrows plucked, because that would make him ‘really gay’.
Luckily we found Evgeny and Viktor. And a nice bonus, was that Evgeny was a much better singer than the actor that dropped out. This came in handy: The rights owners of the original track, that his character Nina sings, backed out when they heard it was for an LGBT-film. So, we had to write our own version.’
How do you as young residents of Moscow see the situation that’s portrayed in the film as opposed to your everyday reality? Is alpha masculinity, binge drinking and drug abuse as glorified as in the film and do you have any queer friends yourselves?
Viktor Tarasenko: ‘I didn’t have gay friends, but now I do. When we started rehearsing, I contacted some young gays through social media. I wanted to learn about their experiences. What I found out, is that they have to go through quite some hostility. These kids are often only out to their own parents, but those parents are almost never accepting of their sexuality.’
‘Of course there is violence against gay people as well,’ adds Ratushnaya. ‘But we chose very carefully not to include any beating in the film. Because I think that’s what people would expect in a film about gay or transgender people in Russia. But it’s not about that. It’s about the more personal stories of these characters and how they illustrate what it means to be an outsider on a more spiritual level.’
Gleb Kalyuzhnyy: ‘Regarding the young adult scene in Moscow: I do recognize the excessive partying, hanging around on the streets, the sexual promiscuity and drug abuse that the characters engage in. It is definitely true to life.
An ex-girlfriend of mine and her friends served as inspiration for my character’s surroundings. She had very rich parents, but never got any attention from them. I think this is the case with many of these boys and girls in Moscow. They seek validation. And in these surroundings, machoism is praised.’
None of the cast or crew is a member of the LGBT-community themselves. Weren’t you afraid to impose on their experiences as an outsider?
Ratushnaya: ‘I have been kind of obsessed with the Russian LGBT-community for years. I wish I could say I am queer myself. But I am not. I admire the strength and resilience LGBT-people have to have, just to be themselves. This made me interested in their lives and stories. I watched hours and hours of coming-out videos on YouTube and follow many Russian gay youngsters on Instagram.
Before making the film I consulted with members of the community. And we worked together with an LGBT-rights association. We’ve had great positive feedback from the community. But of course, there are some people that don’t like the fact that I made this film. Or they want it to be what it cannot be. My film is a work of art, and it portrays the lives of outsiders – regardless of their precise identity. It is not a documentary, nor an activist film.
Sure, it would be nice if a lesbian Russian director would make an LGBT-film. But they haven’t. And I wanted to and dared, so I did it.’