Cinema against homophobia
“LGBT and other subcultures, don’t take out your trash on the outside. Your home is your fortress,” blasts from a projected wall in an open-space commune-style living room, watched by an artsy crowd. The member of the “Camaraderie Sect” appeals ironically to the audience in the room. The experimental short film “Camaraderie Sect” (in original: Tovarystvo secta) by Yana Bachynska (he/him) and his team takes “queering practices” from private to public realm and applies queer approach to different spaces in the city of Lviv.
“I wanted to withdraw queer from the dimension of gender and sexuality and connect it to other dimensions of human activities,” Yana Bachynska, the initiator and director of this community project, explains.
In the last years, LGBT+ community in Ukraine has been gaining visibility, but the topics haven’t been necessarily resonating in everyday life of the majority of the society. Recently, Ukrainians have been showing more acceptance towards LGBT+ issues in the recent public surveys, but the situation for queer art remains complicated. A strong network of NGOs has been organising numerous and well-attended pride marches and pushing for a broad variety of LGBT+ related issues ranging from basic human right protection
to a more LGBT+ friendly education system. Nevertheless, Ukraine still remains under the influence of (mostly) Russian-financed anti-gay propaganda and the Eastern Orthodox Church promoting conservative family models.
The Sunny Bunny Edition of Molodist, the biggest film festival in Ukraine, ensures that critically acclaimed internationally featured films with LGBT+ topics get to Kyiv. The work of the team shows how cinema can serve as a powerful weapon against homophobic tendencies. Indeed, in 2019 the Grand Prix was awarded to an LGBT+ film, “Sauvage” by Camille Vidal-Naquet, a French film about a love-seeking gay hustler.
“I think this was the first time ever in the festival’s history,” says Bohdan Zhuk, a programmer of Molodist. The same year Georgian film “And Then We Danced”, depicting the struggles of a gay ballet dancer, won the Grand Prix of the Odessa film festival. Though when speaking about Ukrainian LGBT+ production itself, Bohdan doesn’t seem to be so hopeful. “There’s not really a coherent scene. The majority of the filmmakers have been focusing on short films,” Bohdan explains.
Despite the hurdles, there has been a whole variety of interesting short films coming from Ukraine. The Molodist festival has been helping to promote them in Ukraine and abroad. In the last years, they have facilitated exchange programs with acclaimed international festivals to show a selection of queer and LGBT+ films abroad.
With or against the current
“I think it’s important that we distinguish between institutionalised LGBT+ and grassroots queer agenda,” Yulia Serdyukova, a producer and grassroots activist, tells me during our zoom meeting.
Despite the common goals such as increasing support for LGBT+ related issues and fighting the omnipresent homophobia, there’s a bind between the approach of institutionalised activism and grassroots queer activism. In a simple manner, the divide between queer and LGBT+ agenda can be characterised by its focus: whether it’s targeting the sameness and inclusion of gay people in the current system or aims to subvert the mainstream narratives.
The same divide applies to filmmaking: on one hand, there are LGBT+-themed projects made by straight filmdirectors or films with gay/lesbian protagonists that are produced for a more mainstream audience. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the radical intersectional approach to queer filmmaking that’s anti-nationalist and anti-capitalist and an experimental approach to filmmaking in both form and process.
There are films trying to prove that LGBT+ people are in all walks of the society such as “Second Front” by Maksym Nekonechny which portrayed LGBT+ members of the Ukrainian army in four short documentary parts. And then there are projects that identify as queer such as “Camaraderie Sect”.
“That is crucial to realize that queer cinema is not only about peculiar stories that deal with gender and sexuality. Queer is also about exclusion and marginalization. So for me, it’s more about low-fi than about beautiful images and big budgets,” Yana shares his view.
For some, LGBT+ themed films can be described as queer because they go against mainstream patriarchal heteronormative society.
“For me personally, queer films can be defined as ones that don’t fit the binary and/or patriarchal patterns and habits common in cinema and culture broadly, or go in clear opposition to them. And LGBTQ+ is a more specific term that overtly reflects films dealing with LGBTQ-related issues and themes,” explains Bohdan.
“A small part of people in Ukraine know what utopia is and what queer is,” at the beginning of the film, a member of the “Camaraderie Sect” confesses. Cuban-American queer theorist Jose Munuoz defined queer utopia as something that isn’t in the present but has to be imagined. Yana’s film fearlessly walks in this direction: by combining utopian approaches to filmmaking, erasing borders between the making and the art itself. Following their daily routine of audio hallucinations, where they receive messages from a future where a queer utopia has come, the camaraderie’s main goal is to build bridges to make these ends meet.
The team creates the film as a manifesto dedicated to people who “feel the gap between present and future.”
“The one thing that connected all of us is the relation to queer in the various meanings of this word and the thirst for the unimaginable,” Yana explains.
In its subchapters, the camaraderie is dedicated to different activities, such as literature, biochemistry, motherhood or religion.
“The topic wasn’t an easy challenge. Besides the hostile attitude of the society, there is a strong critical position inside of the LGBT+ community. I had to keep the balance between art and ideology,” Yana adds.
The project was funded by and developed during an artist-in-residency program, “Coming Out of Isolation”, a joint project of the IZOLYATSIA Foundation and the public organization KyivPride, with the aim to eliminate discrimination and prejudice towards members of the LGBT+ community in Ukraine.
The financial instabilities impact the production of many queer projects on several levels.
“Queer artists and filmmakers often struggle for basic survival because of their marginalized status. A lot of projects don’t end up happening, because of the lack of time or burnout of the artists and activists,” Yulia explains.
Filmmakers seeking funds are often met by a lack of imagination from those in a position of power. While a lot of the short film ideas resonate with international human-rights organisations, traditional cultural bodies such as the Ukrainian State Film Agency or universities don’t always offer support.
Speaking with the next generation of queer filmmakers, it seems that students don’t get the encouragment to carry on with queer subjects.
“If we choose to tell non-heterosexual stories, they have to about be comedical unrealistic characters that are not meant to be taken seriously,” confesses Yehor Harmash, a directing student of the Kyiv National University of Culture and Arts (KNUCA).
Within the queer filmmakers community, the emphasis is not only on making individual projects, but onorganising the process horizontally. “Camaraderie Sect” was a collective production that went against classical film hierarchies.
“There are almost no strict roles in this film because at different times, different people were writing a script, filming or acting. We had something like a two weeks residency for our participants, who were people from different cities with different backgrounds,” Yana describes. While some had been friends for years, some of them came together for the first time, connected by the thirst for unconventional, radical cinema.
Showing films against all odds
Thus, when films get made, filmmakers often struggle with finding ways to show them to the audience. AntiGonna, who was also a participant of the Izolyatsia residency with a short film “Lucid Skin”, works on the intersection between video art and film. The artist known for experiments with genres faces severe censorship problems both in Ukraine and abroad due to explicit sex scenes.
“My projects often deal with sexual violence and as such, they have been clasified as pornographic,” she explains.
During the exhibition in the PinchukArtCenter, her series of “horror porn” shorts, where she depicts some traumatic personal experience, were displayed only in an edited version.
Besides, security threats ocassionaly happen during LGBTQ+ events and homophobic attacks are still no anomaly. In its twenty years of existence, the Sunny Bunny edition has generated both recognition and setbacks. Besides the numerous sold-out screenings and a surging interest from audiences outside the community, there was also an attack, when a duo of alt-right extremists set the oldest cinema in the country, Zhovten, on fire during one of the screenings.
Films don’t have to be sexually explicit in order to face issues during screenings. Queer approaches in filmmaking aren’t always well-received in Ukraine. One of the most interesting recent contributions to Ukrainian queer cinema is the short documentary “Wonderful Years” (original title: Ščaslivi roki) by Svitlana Shymko and Galina Yarmanova. The film combats the popular misconception that homosexuality is imposed by Western culture and that it didn’t exist during the Soviet occupation. This unique exploration into the lives of non-heterosexual women in Ukraine in the late Soviet Union combines archive video materials and interview excerpts. While the film was selected for a series of national cinema screenings as a part of the presentation of new Ukrainian shorts, in the end it was withdrawn by the organisers last minute, allegedly for the “lack of stylistic coherence” with the other shorts
Creating alliances that give space to voices unheard by mainstream media seems to be crucial for queer filmmaking. To combat distribution problems, Yulia and a group of queer feminist activists have decided to start their own festival. The opening edition of the first Ukrainian feminist film festival, which will also include a queer section, is planed for August 2021. The festival is set up as a digital platform so audiences outside the capital can also be reached.
When speaking about the future for Ukraine and LGBTQ+, the filmmakers seem to have clear goals. I guess what Ukraine needs is more representation of LGBTQ people in all kinds of media (including films), sexual education (there is none) and better, newer education practices in general. That’s what’s going to improve the situation in the long term, Bohdan says. With that, the audience might expect feature-length utopias, series about queer subjects and radicality in form.
“Now I want to have at least some funding and not to work for free all the time. I dream about making profound cinema which will be interesting for a big audience besides the art world and activist community,” Yana adds.
The pursuit of queer utopia is what motivates Yulia in producing critical author-driven films and keeps her grassroots activist projects alive despite all difficulties. When asked to imagine her utopian professional future, this is how she pictures it: “…all inequalities and violence are gone, and I am producing fantasy TV series for entertainment purposes.”
 For the purposes of this article, I will distinguish between LGBT+ to talk about sexual orientation and LGBT+ themed films. Queer will be used as an adjective to refer to queer cinema or queer approaches that go against the trends of mainstream culture.
 The Agency hasn’t responded to the request for an interview.
This material is prepared as part of the Covering LGBT issues in transnational journalism project with the support of the Eastern Partnership Program of the German Federal Foreign Office
Czech-born writer, filmmaker and gender studies student based in Berlin