In the late 1990s and early 2000s the LGBT landscape was pretty bleak. What activity there had been in the very early 1990s soon fizzled out. Society, on the whole, remained uninformed and of course no one was advocating for LGBT rights. The situation in the cultural context was a little better. A lot centred around lesbian and gay clubs (some more public than others) and also the development of internet. But sometimes there was a brutal, even desperate atmosphere. I spoke and met with a lot of lesbian and gay people and understandably no one had come out. You could see that a lot of people suffered, having to hide who they were all the time. This experience left quite an impression on me and that is where the roots of the idea for Side by Side came from.
At that time there was no annual LGBT film festival in Russia or for that matter any public, open cultural LGBT event. The Side by Side festival has two main core goals. First, to empower members of the LGBT community is Russia. Second, to create a forum for discussion with society at large. We have multi-day film festivals (in autumn in Petersburg and spring in Moscow) plus stand alone special events. We produce a lot of literature that is distributed freely on a wide range of LGBT issues. Several years ago we produced an anthology of LGBT comics . We work with the regions through our outreach film and discussion programme (LGBT Cinema in Your Hometown).
From 2006 up until the end of 2011, the LGBT movement in Russia had started to make quite a bit of headway — showing that change is possible and Russian people can be won over to positions of tolerance. But when Vladimir Putin returned to power in 2012, the LGBT community was singled out as the public enemy. In 2013 the infamous “anti-gay law” banned so-called LGBT “propaganda” to minors. Side by Side was among the first to bear the brunt of the “foreign agent law” relating to NGOs. In 2013 we were taken to court and fined. During our Petersburg festival that year, we experienced five separate bomb threats (police have attempted to close the case of all investigations).
The anti-gay law attempted to force us from the public sphere. Initially it became more difficult to get partners to promote the festival, more problematic to distribute flyers and posters, and at every screening we had to check the passports of visitors to ensure that people were over 18. Since that time the situation has improved a little, fear around the law has lessened, and today we are able to operate reasonably freely. The law, naturally, needs to be revoked.
The festival is helping to change attitudes. Many of our non-LGBT visitors say that they become more tolerant and accepting after a film or discussion. They understand the issues more, begin to reflect and challenge their prejudices. Making societal change is a long process, even more so coupled with the political climate in Russia, but it is possible. We have just celebrated our 10th anniversary in St Petersburg — certainly a victory in the face of all the challenges over the years.