The ‘Hunted’ Gays of Putin’s Russia: Vicious Vigilantes and State Bigotry Close Up
Targeted on all sides by thugs, the Kremlin, and the Orthodox Church, Russian LGBTs face a desperate situation that is graphically evoked in HBO’s new documentary.
What is the sound of a man terrified for his life? The sound of a man surrounded by 13 bullies who are desperate to beat him up, maybe worse, for being gay? Well, it is a horrible sound. A whimpering, half-growl and curdled scream, a cornered-animal cry of a sound.
The man is held down and taunted and asked questions on a video camera for footage that will later be released to destroy his life — just in case the vigilantes surrounding him, wanting to pour urine over him, haven't made him feel so lousy that he might commit suicide, as they hope he will. They laugh as they imagine gays doing that.
It is the sound of this gentleman's whimpering you may not be able to expunge from your mind after watching Ben Steele’s brilliant, if thoroughly disturbing, HBO documentary, Hunted: The War Against Gays in Russia, which premieres tonight (Monday).
This harrowing film, narrated by Matt Bomer, takes the viewer into modern-day Russia and the state of siege its LGBT citizens exist under. Sanctioned by the State and carried out most viciously — in physical terms — by vigilante squads who torture and beat gay men, these despicable attacks are then posted online to fully destroy the victims’ professional and personal lives and sense of selves.
At the heart of Steele's film is the scene described above, featuring the gay man who has been inveigled to a St. Petersburg apartment where a bunch of cowardly, moronic, violence-loving vigilantes from the group "Occupy Pedophilia" trap gay men — after making contact on social media on the pretext of arranging a sexual hook-up.
"Don't fuck with us. Stay down," the man is told, as the thugs encircle him.
This brilliant and extremely upsetting documentary was originally shown in Britain at the time of the Sochi Olympics, and helped focus attention on Russia's appalling treatment of LGBTs. Now its American premiere will again place a much-needed international spotlight on Putin and his state-sanctioned homophobia. LGBTs in Russia have "never been so under siege," says Steele, "and so hunted." Attacks on LGBT have risen; public feeling — encouraged by Putin and the authorities — is hostile towards them.
Homosexuality may have been decriminalized in Russia 21 years ago, and it may have been removed from the country's list of mental illnesses, but religious institutions and social attitudes are long frozen in antipathy. A third of Russians believe gay people should be medically or psychologically treated.
As well as by the vigilante gangs, and a generally hostile public, LGBTs are being targeted in terms of discriminatory legislation; the most iniquitous being a "propaganda" law, which forbids the dissemination of material of a positive or neutral nature around homosexuality to those under 18 years old.
Putin and the thugs on the street — like homegrown bigots — freely conflate homosexuality and pedophilia to exacerbate public fear and prejudice towards gay people.
Steele's film opens in the middle-class home in St Petersburg of a man named Timor. He seems so gentle with his 7-year-old son, that it comes as a surprise to discover he is a ringleader of a group of vicious bigots called Parents of Russia who "expose" gay people on the Internet, with banners across their faces to have them fired from their jobs. His particular focus is lesbian and gay teachers, and their supporters, who he does not want near children.
Timor's homophobia is virulent. We watch as he and his friend Dimitri head off to a lesbian and gay film festival. There, they hand out shiny bags to participants: these are decoy pretty gifts, because inside are messages saying, "Kill yourself and cleanse the earth of your wickedness." The men laugh as they opine that, "Filth like them should not exist. Instead of pushing them out of Russia, we should make them take their own lives."
"We offer heterosexual therapy, we offer beautiful friendship," they shout at two lesbians walking into the film festival.
There is so little for LGBTs in Russia anyway — they cannot demonstrate together, any gathering can be disrupted like this, hook-ups online could be vigilantes looking to beat you up — that it comes as little surprise when a fake bomb threat, called in to the film festival, destroys that evening's meager opportunity for gathering together and entertainment.
Timor is overjoyed at the malign trouble he and his friends have caused. The security guards at the festival only turn on him and his mates when the men insult their own masculinity. "This is Russia, this is hell for homosexuals," says Timor, and he is extremely happy about that.
We see snatches of the vigilante films you may have seen before online: men kicked in the face, punched, beaten, insulted, laughed at as they are humiliated. As with most bullies, it's never one-on-one: these supposedly big, butch straight Russian men need a group of accomplices to torture just one gay man. In one video, a Human Rights Watch researcher tells us, they force a gay man to rape himself with a bottle.
One gay man is interviewed after he was attacked by a group of homophobes at a discreet party at a community center. He has been left blind in one eye. "A hunting season is open, and we are the hunted," he says. Successful prosecutions of homophobic attacks are rare (they are not classified as hate crimes); the attackers go free. The police and authorities are on their side, after all.
A Russian Orthodox churchman is interviewed. Is he preaching tolerance, offering LGBTs a safe space? No, for him gay marriage is "a sign of the apocalypse.”
"Even cattle don't engage in this," he says of gay sex. Like most bigots (in Russia, and elsewhere) he is obsessed, as Steele puts it, "with what gays put where in the sex act. They never focus on gays as people." LGBTs are spiritually and morally ill, says the churchman.
The extremely dark heart of Steele's film comes when he makes contact with Katya, the head of the St. Petersburg branch of Occupy Pedophilia. She looks cool, trendy, young and then she starts talking about entrapping two gay men and laughing of one, "We'll destroy his life as usual."
You cheer when their nasty plan to get one man to come to the apartment where she and her group of male accomplices lie in wait is scuppered when the man doesn't take their bait.
But, like the most determined cop in a public restroom, the male bigot-bait goes outside and picks the man up, and brings him to the apartment. He is obviously terrified. "Sit down, stop wriggling, I'll piss on you," is sneered at him by various members of the group.
They laugh at the man, and — filming his humiliation — Katya, smirking and warning him he'd be getting much worse if Steele (who blurs the man's face) wasn't there filming, asks him deeply personal questions about his sex life (is he active or passive, is he gay, has he told his parents?). The man is crying, answers in one-word terrified bursts. One of the bigots still wants to pour piss on him. After an hour, he is released. The vigilantes have made their film to destroy him.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Steele told me he had gained the vigilantes' trust by saying he was objective, that he simply wanted to observe what they did. Before making the film, he had discussed with colleagues "the moral complexities of filming to ensure I was on the right side of that ethical line. At no time did I say to the vigilante group, 'Oh yeah, I hate gays too,'" says Steele. "For me this was about bearing witness, to properly record what is happening in Russia, and to bring that to as many people's attention as possible."
Steele says he didn't believe it was for him to challenge the vigilantes, but film their actions, and let the viewers decide what to make of it. He did not feel complicit with them.
Even if he had wanted to intervene, he couldn't have as he is "no Arnold Schwarzenegger," as he says. But it is also his strongly felt view that we must watch, should watch, such things — no matter how violent and disturbing — because the images convey a reality that must be confronted and acknowledged.
The group try to push Steele out of the room as they target the man, but Steele pushes back to continue filming. He believes, probably rightly, that his presence meant the beating and taunting that man received was less extreme because of his presence.
Afterwards, Steele followed the man and offered to help him go home or do whatever he needed to do. The man declined Steele's offer of assistance, and also did not want to report what had happened to the police.
When Steele returned to the apartment the vigilantes were angry with him ("Their blood was up, the mood was not good"), asking why he had gone after the man: Steele insisted he was just doing his job, and giving the man the same right to speak and be represented as he was according to the vigilantes.
"The most surprising and terrifying thing was to be in that room at the moment they surrounded the man," Steele tells me. "I couldn't believe it was happening, right there, right in the moment." Filming it through his own camera's viewfinder kept him steady: it was a necessary mediating tool. "The scene is the most important scene in the film: it makes clear, graphically, the violence LGBT people face in Russia on a much larger scale."
Steele's film also follows the unbelievably brave gays trying to take a stand. Protesters are not allowed to protest in pairs, yet even if they do it singly the cops harass them, as we see. They cannot use the word "gay" on their placards.
We follow Dimitri, Timor's friend, as he goes to court, charged with assaulting Vasily, a gay man, holding a rainbow flag (Steele tells me that Dimitri was found guilty, though escaped a custodial sentence). Katya and her cronies laugh at and taunt Vasily as he leaves court.
LGBTs do have straight allies, Steele says. Yekaterina, a teacher, says she feels compelled to fight for gay rights and equality because of the stoking of fears and hatred she sees the authorities indulging in, igniting hatred and making scapegoats of LGBTs to divert people's attention from the grave economic and social problems Russia faces.
Next, the camera switches to Timor's apartment: he is doing all he can online to destroy Yekaterina, writing "Fire Her," and "Gay Activist To Fire" over images of her face. "Look at her, she is smiling," he says, outraged. "And I will find out who this is, her friend," he says pointing at someone standing next to Yekaterina in a photograph.
The extremity of Timor and Katya's homophobia is shocking and intriguing, and worthy of a documentary in itself. One thing we do not discover is why they hate gay people so much and so actively. Timor's views are not seen as extreme in Russia, says Steele. "The climate of hate is all-pervasive."
This makes the bravery of Julia and Sveta, a lesbian couple, to appear in the documentary that much more moving. They have three children from previous marriages, who they fear the authorities would take away from them if the proposed — and still mercifully unsanctioned — law which would give the authorities the right to remove children from same-sex couple parents, was ever passed.
Sveta shows her face in the documentary: she doesn't want to hide any more. Julia says, "We are a family. If they come to take my children, they will have to shoot me first."
Steele, who is presently working on a documentary on the Romany gypsy community (as well as another project for HBO he declines to talk about), says he would like to know how the participants of the documentary have fared. However, he has no plans presently to return to Russia to find out.
The international community, says Steele, has registered its own emphatic condemnation of Russian actions towards LGBT people — but to what practical effect? And does Putin care? Not at all, it seems. Standing up to international criticism he thinks makes him seem big in his own country. A few days ago, Russia ended an international student exchange program after claiming a US gay couple had persuaded a student to seek asylum in the US.
And so, the attack on Russian LGBT people, and their fragile right to live freely, continues. It is a desperate situation — and Hunted is deeply uncomfortable but necessary viewing.
Hunted: The War Against Gays in Russia is on HBO tonight (Monday, October 6), at 9 p.m.