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‘Nobody believes our film is actually legal’ The Russian movie ‘Outlaw’ is provoking backlash from the authorities and LGBTQ activists alike

Source: Meduza
Kristina Vanuni / HHG

Released in Russia on October 29, the film “Outlaw” centers around a transgender woman living in the USSR and gay high school student living on the outskirts of present-day Moscow. The drama, which was filmed in Russia, has already been subjected to an inquiry by the Attorney General’s Office. A festival that screened the film in March was fined for violating Russia’s “gay propaganda law” and according to the filmmakers, other screenings were cancelled due to “a phone call from the top.” Meduza digs into the controversy surrounding the film, which is also drawing criticism from LGBTQ activists.

‘A normal youth film’

In 2017, the owner of the PR firm Irony, Ksenia Ratushnaya, wrote a film script for the first time in her life. The script went on to become the movie “Outlaw” — an art-house drama with two timelines. One, set in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, tells the story of a general falling in love with a transgender woman. The other follows a gay high school student in modern day Russia — a “tough guy” named Nikita, who uses drugs. The movie was shot in Moscow and the surrounding region in 2018, and was released on the festival circuit in 2019. 

Meduza’s film critic Anton Dolin described his impression of the film as follows: “It’s a normal youth film, moderately provocative, with several erotic scenes and representation of, let’s say, various sexual practices, including those that are commonly referred to as ’non-traditional’ in Russia. At the same time, there’s nothing that goes beyond festival cinema, as a rule, there’s no trace of any problems getting [it] into Russian distribution.” 

Outlaw (2020) — Official Trailer
HHG Film Company

Problems nonetheless

In conversation with Meduza, Outlaw’s director and screenwriter Ksenia Ratushnaya recalls that she was afraid the film wouldn’t get a distribution license due to the fact that it contains “propaganda [promoting] non-traditional sexual relationships among minors” (in other words, its content could violate Russia’s “gay propaganda law”). That said, the film was aimed at an adult audience from the outset and as a result had no problems getting a license. 

By law, films without a distribution license in Russia can only be screened at international film festivals approved by the Culture Ministry. But even filmmakers in possession of this document can face problems showing their films. For example, The Death of Stalin received a distribution license at the beginning of 2018, but it was later revoked for an “additional review” that never ended up taking place. At the time, Russia’s Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky condemned the film as a mockery “of the entire Soviet past,” including victims of Stalinism. 

Read more about Russia’s response to ‘The Death of Stalin’

Outlaw’s Russian premiere took place at the Spirit of Fire Film Festival (“Dukh Ognya”) in Khanty-Mansiysk back in March. It had previously been screened at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival in Estonia and at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival in the United States. There was some public backlash ahead of the Russian premiere, particularly among users belonging to a group called “Typical Khanty-Mansiysk” on the social networking site VKontakte — they called the film “an abomination.” According to the Spirit of Fire festival’s director, film critic Boris Nelepo, the criticism prompted local media to start writing about the film; one article referred to the online reviews from local residents as a “negative sensation.” 

The organizers expected protesters to show up to the festival, but it took place without any incidents: all of the spectators showed their passports to police officers and the organizers upon entering the movie theater, to confirm that there weren’t any minors attending the screening. Outlaw won three awards at the festival, including its top prize and awards for music and camera work. Film critic Alexey Vasilyev said that Outlaw could become a manifesto for modern-day high school students.

The Attorney General’s Office took interest in the film after the premiere — the festival organizers started receiving inquiries regularly. Prosecutors asked why no one else had screened the film in Russia before, why the organizers chose to screen Outlaw in particular, and why the filmmakers were presented their prizes by underage ballerinas. On the other hand, state prosecutors never contacted the film’s director. 

Who initiated the inquiry remains unknown. At the time of publication, the Attorney General’s Office had yet to reply to Meduza’s questions. Boris Nelepo says that the probe began after the festival’s main sponsor, Gazpromneft-Khantos, received a letter asking why it supports LGBTQ propaganda. Nelepo maintains that a particular deputy was behind the letter, but wouldn’t name the person in question, claiming that he found out about it during a confidential conversation. The sponsor, Gazpromneft-Khantos, didn’t respond to Meduza’s request for comment. 

The film’s director, Ksenia Ratushnaya, tells a different story: according to her, the inquiry could have been motivated by a complaint from a children’s rights commissioner, but she doesn’t know which particular official could be responsible. The Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug’s Children’s Rights Commissioner Tatyana Mokhovikova told Meduza that she wasn’t involved in the inquiry into the film festival and doesn’t know who initiated it. Russia’s Presidential Commissioner for Children’s Rights, Anna Kuznetsov, had not responded to Meduza’s request for comment at the time of publication. 

Meanwhile, on August 10, the Spirit of Fire Film Festival’s former executive director, Larisa Zhuravleva, was fined 50,000 rubles (about $635) for “promoting non-traditional sexual relationships among minors.” She didn’t find out about the fine until a bailiff contacted her on October 28. “All of the issues were resolved with representatives from the Spirit of Fire festival. The court didn’t notify me and didn’t invite me to the hearing,” Zhuravleva told Meduza. 

The former festival organizer has no intention of paying the fine and plans on appealing the court’s ruling. According to her, no one else involved in the Spirit of Fire festival was fined and she was never told what exactly constitutes “gay propaganda.”

Regardless of the inquiry and the fine, Boris Nelepo says that the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug’s leadership continues to advocate for the Spirit of Fire Film Festival. Plans for next year’s festival are already underway. 

LGBTQ criticism

Originally, the filmmakers called Outlaw an “LGBT drama”; that’s how they described it in press releases sent to critics for reviews. “We tried to formulate what the film could be called, if the two storylines are linked to LGBT people. In Russia, the easiest way to define it is to call it a LGBT drama. Though we understood that in a strict sense it isn’t an LGBT drama, it’s an art-house [drama]. We decided to present the film this way for simplicity, “Ratushnaya recalls. 

Ksenia Ratushnaya on set
Kristina Vanuni / HHG

After the film’s Russian premiere, Ratushnaya decided to look for other venues to screen Outlaw as part of a wide release. In July, she started working with distributor Vladislav Pasternak from the HHG Film Company. Twenty-four distributors had already turned her down in various stages of negotiations due to the fact that they didn’t think the film would be a success.

Pasternak suggested redoing some of Outlaw’s promotional materials and abandoning its framing as an LGBTQ drama. “I didn’t position the film as LGBT cinema…There are LGBT characters, but the genre is more surrealist than LGBT. We redid the poster and moved towards eroticism. This is the main thing, it’s more erotic than anything else,” Pasternak told Meduza. 

Some Russian LGBTQ activists also called on the filmmakers to stop calling Outlaw an “LGBT drama.” In conversation with Meduza, Anna Filippova, a writer for the queer culture magazine O-Zine, recalls that when she first watched Outlaw in the fall of 2019, she gave it a positive assessment overall. But when she rewatched it at the beginning of October 2020 she realized that it only nominally refers to the LGBTQ community and is in fact mainly devoted to teenage nihilism, drugs, BDSM.

“An LGBT film should be representative, show their lifestyle, and the problems they face. Outlaw isn’t like that. It talks about anhedonia, coming off mephedrone, and depression. These aren’t the main problems that the LGBT community in Russia faces. They’re persecuted and killed here,” Filipova says. 

Ratushnaya admits that some LGBTQ activists accuse her of “exploiting LGBT themes,” but she denies these accusations. “The story is told in the way it should be told in a movie. And as I understand, this doesn’t live up to the expectations of activists. But it’s my artistic work, not propaganda. I’m not tasked with promoting any [particular] point of view, be it LGBT or conservative,” she says. 

At the same time, Igor Kochetkov, one of the founders of the Russian LGBT Network, wrote that the film breaks “all taboos that can be broken.” He believes that “those who were looking for an encyclopedia of the life of Russian LGBT people didn’t find it in Outlaw and were upset — they themselves are to blame. They simply got the wrong film.” 

“A phone call from the top”

Ratushnaya decided to hold Outlaw’s theatrical premiere at the Oktyabr (October) Cinema in Moscow. She had already reached an agreement with its owner, the cinema chain Karo Film, when it was cancelled “for internal reasons,” the director explains. Spokespeople for Karo Film told Meduza that the possibility of premiering the film at the Oktyabr was only discussed, so no one “cancelled” it. In addition, when Outlaw was released in theaters, it was screened at four of the chain’s locations.

Kristina Vanuni / HHG

The director then decided to have the premiere at the President Hotel — she signed a contract and put down a deposit in advance. Four days before the screening, they called her and said that the hotel was experiencing technical issues and it was unsafe to hold the showing. “What problems, they didn’t know — but they were 100 percent sure that they wouldn’t have time to fix everything,” Ratushnaya recalls. The President Hotel’s event planning department told Meduza that there were technical problems, but refused to clarify what exactly happened.

Rathushnaya then tried the Tretyakov Gallery. The film was added to its program and they started to sell tickets, but the day after the official announcement this screening was cancelled, as well. “They called me back and said that they had received a phone call from the top, but they couldn’t say who, and the screening was canceled. It’s [like] a plot from a Soviet film,” Ratushnaya says. The Tretyakov Gallery’s press service didn’t respond to Meduza’s questions about the cancellation.

In the end, Outlaw had a closed premiere at Moscow’s Pyat Zvyozd (Five Stars) Cinema. According to Ratushnaya, when coordinating the event, the cinema’s management asked her and the producers “to do everything as calmly as possible, so that there aren’t any men in women’s clothing.”

“I interpreted all of this as fear that the government would come to them [the cinema] and punish them for something. Or at the very least a fear that some conservative activists will complain and a strict audit will begin, and that means problems for business. No one wants problems for their business, even hypothetical ones,” Ratushnaya says. “The final decision on showing or cancelling the show is usually made by these reinsurers, and not people who understand what art is and why it’s needed. Nobody believes our film is actually legal.” 

According to distributor Vladislav Pasternak, there’s only about a hundred theaters in Russia that are willing to screen a niche film like Outlaw. When the search for cinemas to screen the film began, he anticipated about 50 venues, but the film has only been shown at 10 movie theaters so far. According to Pasternak, most venues turn the film down for one of two reasons: they’re either afraid of backlash from provocateurs or the authorities, or they don’t think it will make any money. “The scandal definitely scared away the venues, although it [the film] complies with Russian regulations. I think that Outlaw’s release was 80 percent smaller because of this” he says. 

Outlaw is currently being shown at six movie theaters in Moscow and four in St. Petersburg. There’s also special screenings going on in Tolyatti (in the Samara region), Veliky Novgorod, and several other Russian cities. There “were no provocations” during these first showings, according to Ratushnaya and Pasternak.

Pasternak told Meduza that Outlaw made 185,000 rubles (about $2,375) during its first weekend at the box office and maintained that it did very well in comparison with the other newly released films that week. “The absolute figure is small, but each particular screening works great. We came out on top two days in a row. All of the theaters are happy that they showed Outlaw.

Story by Alexandra Sivtsova

Translated and abridged by Eilish Hart

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