The other queers: rethinking the past and future of LGBTQ film on Europe’s periphery

Curving Tooth (dir. Robi Predanič, Alen Predanič, 2022)

Every year, the goEast Film Festival hosts a symposium dedicated to the most vital questions in Eastern European cinema. This year’s edition was entitled “The Other Queers: Cinematic Images of the Periphery of Europe”. Across a series of lectures, discussion panels, screenings, and performances, curators Jasmina Šepetavc (University of Ljubljana) and Yulia Serdyukova (Freefilmers, Kyiv) were joined by scholars, researchers, and filmmakers from across the region to explore the often-neglected history of queer film in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia, the turbulent present, and the utopian future potential of non-conformity represented by queer cinema.

As part of our partnership with the festival, we spoked with Šepetavc and Serdyukova about their curation of the symposium, the question of queer film history in Eastern Europe, their choice of feature films, and the relationship between Ukrainian resistance and queer solidarity. Recordings of four panel discussions from the symposium are also available to watch for free on Klassiki now.

 

The symposium aims to address the past, present, and future of queer film in the region. Starting with the past: mainstream queer film history has tended to speak in terms dictated by the “West”. How can an awareness of Eastern European, Caucasian, and Central Asian film histories complicate and enrich these presumptions?

Jasmina Šepetavc: Articles and books about the history of queer cinema rarely mention these regions, but when they do, the presumption that you can often find is that queer films in Eastern and Central European and Central Asian contexts popped up relatively late, in the 1980s. One film that is usually seen as a break-through in this regard is Károly Makk’s Another Way from 1982. Undoubtedly an important film, but hardly the first work from Eastern Europe to feature queer characters. Behind this narrative of cinematic invisibility of queers in our regions is of course the idea of a linear progress – from (almost) no visibility to liberation after the fall of the socialist regimes – even though these histories are a lot more complex.

We have both dived into the cinematic histories of our regions before, and when we were invited to prepare this year’s goEast symposium, we agreed right away that we wanted to highlight the rich past of subtle or even explicit and politically potent queer cinematic images from our countries. And you can find those in unexpected places: for example, homoeroticism and cross dressing is part of a number of 1950s Yugoslav films, even the partisan ones; works that would, at first glance, read as ideologically propagandistic and very heteronormative (see this year’s Five Minutes of Paradise). We also screened Dubravka, a wonderful Ukrainian youth film from the 1960s in which a young tomboy falls in love with a glamourous older woman, and Kill Me Gently, a Slovenian campy extravaganza that was somewhat forgotten but is a total queer joy to watch.

The regions and regional cinemas were thus not as heteronormative as has been suggested in film scholarship. Moreover, the fall of socialist regimes did not necessarily mean queer liberation, but often went hand in hand with nationalism and re-traditionalisation, and these complicated histories were reflected on film. So, we wanted to subvert this idea of a simple linearity, shift the perspective, and tell a different story about the supposed peripheries of Europe/Central Asia. We do believe excavating older local works, materials, and memories of queerness is important: it serves to widen and restructure the idea of linear temporal trajectories as well as highlighting various queer experiences and politics in different localities.

these regions were not as heteronormative as has been suggested in film scholarship. Moreover, the fall of socialist regimes did not necessarily mean queer liberation, but often went hand in hand with nationalism and re-traditionalisation

“Eastern queerness” is clearly a very multifaceted phenomenon – indeed, part of the problem when it comes to this historical reappraisal is the Western tendency to reduce this huge, diverse region to a monolith. With that in mind, do you think of films you’ve selected as imitating or challenging “Western queerness”?

JŠ: This is quite a complicated question, as the selected films reveal a diversity of cinematic visions, aesthetics, and themes that we would not want to squeeze into this constructed binary of West-East, especially as claiming Eastern European or Central Asian cinema as “different” can easily be read as a moment of self-exoticisation. Contemporary filmmakers usually work in transnational networks and some films, especially those that are more narrative based, very clearly show knowledge of current trends in queer cinema, they are in dialogue with world queer cinema. The challenge comes from locally specific themes that are often invisible, but also quite simply from the fact that queer images and queer filmmakers from our regions exist. And in the context of globally important film festivals like goEast they become visible and accessible to audiences that otherwise wouldn’t get the chance to see these works at all. The distribution and exhibition of works from the “peripheries” in the global cinematic circuit is far from ideal, so curating for us was about highlighting this diversity to international audiences that come to the festival. And this communal watching and discussing of film works is important for challenging the ideas and stereotypes we have about East Europe, Central Asia, regional cinemas, and local queer lives.

 

Jasmina, through your own writing I discovered Nebojša Jovanović’s work, which I found very clarifying. Talking about the perceived absence of queerness in films from the socialist era, he describes a “social amnesia” on the part of Eastern Europeans who, in his words, “persist in [their] reluctance to foreground queer experiences during socialism, thus obliterating them more fully than any homophobia or criminalisation of homosexuality in the socialist countries could do.” Can you describe the challenge and the thrill in reading queerness back into socialist film history – what you describe in the symposium as a form of “grassroots archivism”?

JŠ: As someone who first wanted to be a historian, this sort of archival work has been a passion project of mine for a long time. Growing up I did not think much of local cinema, but then during my undergrad studies I discovered a magazine article in an old Slovenian LGBT+ magazine. In it, the author lists old Slovenian films with queer elements in them. Then I slowly started finding and watching them. As you can imagine, this is complicated, as most are not easily accessible nor digitised. Luckily, the Slovenian LGBT+ movement has this urgent need to archive everything and you can get a lot of information from activists such as Nataša Velikonja, Brane Mozetič, and others. And the more you explore, the more pleasant surprises you discover: for example, Yugoslavia had a number of openly gay directors that inscribed subcultural codes into their works. You can find gems like the 1964 film Comrades, a film that Vojko Duletič (a gay director who usually worked with his partner Tone) made for a Slovenian mining school. The film turned out so “queer” (it mostly shows young muscular miners looking longingly outside the frame or using their mining drills half naked) that the school administration just didn’t know what to do with it and never really used it. I and others have started writing about these interesting and forgotten works, as it is important to talk about these queer histories and bring them to light.

A Severe Young Man (dir. Abram Room, 1936)

With that in mind: can you talk about your choice of feature films for the symposium: two Soviet Ukrainian titles – Abram Room’s A Severe Young Man (1936) and Radomir Vasilevsky’s Dubravka (1967) – and two Yugoslav titles, Boštjan Hladnik’s Kill Me Gently (1979) and Igor Pretnar’s Five Minutes of Paradise (1959). How do these four films speak to one another, in your opinions? Is there anything in particular in the Ukrainian-Soviet and Yugoslav film histories that contrasts or compares particularly well?

JŠ: We primarily focused on our regions and wanted to highlight different decades, that is why these films were chosen. And they tied in perfectly with the work our symposium guests are doing: critic and curator Călin Boto, who wrote the presentation for A Severe Young Man for the cinema audience, is a fan of Abram Room’s work and curated his other film dealing with an unconventional ménage à trois, Bed and Sofa, for the Romanian ART200 queer festival a few years ago. Room is an interesting auteur, not just because of elements of queerness in some of his films, but also because of his international career – he was born in Vilnius, worked in Moscow, and A Severe Young Man was produced and then banned by [Soviet Ukrainian studio] Ukrainfilm – so he is a part of this rich regional history. Nebojša Jovanović, who had a lecture during the symposium, has written on 1950s Yugoslav films with queer elements, and Five Minutes of Paradise is one of the prime examples of how Yugoslav celluloid sexualities of the time were complex. Guests Syaivo Dmytryk and Mariam Agamian wrote a wonderful article about Dubravka, a rare find of queerness in Ukrainian film, which was a treat to watch. And Kill Me Gently is one of my favourite Slovenian films – it is totally chaotic, kitschy, campy, but also serious and moving as it speaks of the importance imagination plays in the lives of marginalised communities.

the more you explore, the more pleasant surprises you discover: for example, Yugoslavia had a number of openly gay directors that inscribed subcultural codes into their works

Moving to the contemporary titles: among the concepts that you use to curate the titles are “precarious joy” and “post-socialist time slips”. Can you talk about their meaning and how they elucidate aspects of queer filmmaking in the region today?

Yulia Serdyukova: The program “Post-Socialist Time Slips” was curated by Ruthia Jenrbekova and Maria Vilkovisky, artists from Almaty (now partly based in Vienna), originally for the D-Est platform, and contains short films from Central Asia and the Caucasus. As I perceive it, this title, as well the program itself, challenges the very idea of progress (from the conservative past to the liberated future), which, as Jasmina mentioned above, is a characteristic of Western thinking in general and conceptions of LGBT+ art and activism in particular. The queer wedding of “everyone and everyone else” on a rooftop in Almaty accompanied by quotes from José Esteban Muñoz, the author of the “queer utopia” concept, coexists in this program with a look into the past and present of the region in an attempt to understand and heal generational wounds, and passionate queer sex is mixed with a nationalistic Armenian song as a rebellious act of life after a homophobic attack on a queer club in Yerevan. In these carefully curated cinematic journeys, time moves backwards and onwards, slips, stops, and goes on – offering us non-linear queer experiences.

The “Precarious Joy” title of the opening shorts program was inspired by ALOK, a queer poet, comedian, and activist from the USA. In their poem “Our Precarious Joy”, ALOK says: “… we live here – in this precarious joy – and we have found preciousness, still.” It was important to us to stray away from the narratives of LGBT+ lives as constant pain and struggle in homophobic surroundings, and stress the joy that love, compassion, and mutual support bring to queer communities around the globe. While illustrating a film program from the “East” with words from a “Western” author might not be the best move from the perspective of challenging existing hierarchies, it also demonstrates that there are more similarities than differences between queer communities in various parts of the planet, as many films shown at the symposium dive into this joy and celebration of life – against all stereotypes about the suffering of LGBT+ people in “Eastern” societies.

The Secret, the Girl, and the Boy (dir. Oksana Kazmina, 2017)

Yulia, can you talk about the crossover between queer filmmaking and activism and your work in Freefilmers? How should we understand queer film practice in the context of the Russian invasion and Ukrainian resistance?

YuS: During the first months of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, when more and more atrocities that Russian troops committed were revealed (all the tortures and executions of civilians, all the indiscriminate bombings of cities), I often thought about how all my co-citizens, no matter their political views, moral values, and life experiences, were facing something similar to what queer people know intimately: existential hatred and the danger of annihilation for the simple fact of who you are and your wish to live in freedom. In this respect, queer filmmaking in Ukraine is nowadays similar to that of straight people: we document our lives and struggles, mostly against the invading army and the devastation it brings. It was important for me that the symposium represent, as much as possible, the most relevant experiences of contemporary queer Ukrainians. The art of LGBT+ people in Ukraine, cinema in particular, is not necessarily connected with sexuality or gender identity these days but reflects on the precariousness of life in times of war, shares grief, and looks for the strength to go on with resisting and simply living. Some such experiences are shared in the films in the “Renegade Joy Till the End of the World” program: most of all in films such as Remembering the Smell of Mariupol by Zoya Laktionova, The Film of Sand, and Sea. Wind. WTF by Sashko Protyah, and in the exhibition Political Textile by Ton Melnyk and Masha Ravlyk, which consisted of various textile works (banners, embroidery, textile books) sharing emotional and physical experiences evoked by this war.

However, thinking of how the war could have proved a uniting experience for Ukrainian citizens, I must say that in reality, it mostly multiplied the vulnerabilities of Ukrainian queer communities: for example, trans*folks with the “M” gender marker in their passports cannot leave the country because of restrictions of martial law (a reason why several potential symposium participants could not join us), and hate crimes (in the form of physical attacks) against LGBT+ people have not stopped (although, there was a short period of quietness in this respect during the first year of the full-scale invasion).

During the first months of the Russian invasion. I thought about how all my co-citizens, no matter their political views, moral values, and life experiences, were facing something similar to what queer people know intimately: existential hatred and the danger of annihilation

Freefilmers, the collective of filmmakers and artists I am part of, mostly consists of people from Mariupol (I am one of the few exceptions). During the first months of the full-scale invasion, we could not even think about filmmaking, as all our efforts were directed at survival. At that time, we tried to help as many people as possible from Mariupol and other eastern Ukrainian towns whom we knew personally – mostly through our work (protagonists of our films, artists, and activists with whom we collaborated), but also simply our friends and relatives – to evacuate. When some of them joined the army, we helped to provide them with some life-saving equipment (like radios or tourniquets). And although filmmaking and other artistic production has gradually returned to our lives, humanitarian work is now an important part of our collective’s practice. The war continues, and one of our members is also serving in the army at the moment, so we are joining the efforts of many other Ukrainians to help both alleviate its consequences for civilians, and aid soldiers in their service as much as we can. Vulnerable communities (queer, but not only) were always a focus of our creative work, so it’s only natural that our humanitarian work focuses on helping those who are left on the margins of society, and therefore of state care. Besides queer artists, that also includes Roma IDPs, women surviving in villages that are de-occupied and half-destroyed or worse. Showcasing works by Freefilmers has become an important gesture of solidarity for us, since most of the screening fees and all donations collected in the process support our humanitarian work.

 

Finally, looking to the future: you invoke the idea of “queer utopias” to describe the potential inherent to queer filmmaking. How do you think we can best make sense and use of the idea of utopia in a contemporary context that appears so bleak? 

YuS: I ask myself this question every time when challenged by this concept, and I find the answer in a famous quote from the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci, who argued for the necessity to maintain “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” It is impossible to ignore the growing grim perspective for humanity nowadays, but without utopian imagination, which is so present in queer art of all times (as well as in art and ideas of other subjugated communities), the world would have been doomed a long time ago. The mutual care and kindness which is often found in such art, is a strong inspirational force to not give up the fight for a better (or any, as of today) future. Through programming the symposium, we hoped to share this inspiration with the audience.

Watch recordings of panels from the “Other Queers” symposium on Klassiki as part of our partnership with goEast Film Festival, and explore our collection of LGBTQ film here.

Please consider donating to Freefilmers using the details here.