This article originally appeared on VICE Belgium.
Russian screenwriter Elizaveta Simbirskaya, 31, and director Andreï Fenøčka, 27, have just released Here I Come, a web series about queer teenagers in Russia. The catch is: most of their target audience isn’t allowed to watch it.
In 2013, Russia passed a federal law that bans the “promotion of nontraditional sexual relations to minors”. Known as the anti-gay propaganda law, it effectively censors LGBTQ representation in the media and in education. To circumvent this legislation, Simbirskaya and Fenøčka made the series available on YouTube only to people aged 18 and over.
According to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA), Russia is one of the worst countries for LGBTQ rights in Europe. Sex between men was criminalised in the country until 1993, and homosexuality was classified as a mental disease until 1999. Since 2013, violence against queer people has risen sharply, as the Kremlin continues to clamp down on LGBTQ rights under the guise of defending Russia’s traditional family values. Among other things, this law is frequently used to fine LGBTQ activists.
Russia keeps a close eye on movies, plays, books and even Instagram accounts to enforce this legislation. If you want to see a movie featuring LGBTQ characters, for example, you’ll probably be asked for your ID in advance. The creators of Here I Come avoided a lot of this hassle by uploading the series to YouTube, but it doesn’t mean they’re not taking a big risk. Simbirskaya, who goes by Liza, said a lot of people in the industry won’t touch LGBTQ stories, for fear of getting in trouble with the police or the public prosecutor’s office.
VICE: Hi Liza and Andrei. What’s your series about?
Andrei Fenøčka: It’s about an Armenian boy from a wealthy family who lives in Moscow. He’s a student and a pizza delivery guy. One day, he finds himself in the middle of Moscow kissing a stranger, a guy. Before this, he never thought he was gay, but he doesn’t live this experience as a tragedy or a big surprise. Yet, he doesn’t know how to tell his friends or family.
Liza Simbirskaya: While preparing for the series, one of my queer friends said, “Please don’t show just darkness and misery in the queer community.” We didn’t want to portray gay people having a hard time with their sexuality, even though it’s difficult to live in Russia as a queer or trans person. I decided to write a story about how things can be easy, that it’s OK to be gay. I wanted a story about love, friendship and acceptance.
Why did you choose to do a web series?
Liza: I didn’t want to work with big production houses. They prefer to focus on white, cisgender, rich people. I find that very boring – I’m not interested in these luxury problems. I want to make movies about young adults, teenagers. I want to have diversity in my projects. It’s also cheaper to make a web series.
Andrei: Movies are usually shown at film festivals where your audience is very limited. With a web series, you can reach an audience beyond your imagination.
How did you approach the actors?
Andrei: At first, we told actors we were interested in about the story. If they weren’t OK with that, they were out. We ended up with ten options for every character and we went for the people who fit best as a group. It was important to us that the actors were comfortable with each other on set.
Liza: A lot of people said they weren’t comfortable playing a queer character, or that they don’t support LGBTQ rights.
Did you worry about your own safety or the crew’s?
Liza: I was afraid for our actors. Some of them work with children, and I do too – I’m a screenwriter for cartoons. I could lose my job because of this. Nothing happened, but there’s always a risk.
Andrei: You don’t always feel safe when you leave your flat in Russia. Anything can happen, even if you’re just going to the grocery store.
Liza: Yeah, we live in a militarised country. You can go to the store and someone can grab you and do what they want to you. The police will always find something to hold against you, and they have these laws to support them.
Were there particularly stressful moments?
Andrei: Everyone was very nervous about the kissing scene. It was shot in the middle of Moscow, near the Kremlin. The set was in front of a house partly owned by the Church. We agreed with the team to rehearse in advance and then shoot the scene in one take. But we ended up doing five or six takes. Luckily, nothing happened.
Liza: While we were shooting, some guys started staring and making comments. The actors were brave, they didn’t mind. These are things you just have to accept and ignore.
Are there other scenes you think people might be offended by?
Andrei: We’re not interested in explicit scenes. We wanted to tell a story, not shock people.
Do you think Russians are ready to watch the series with an open mind?
Liza: We have a very complicated past and a big collective trauma. It’s difficult to overcome it. People remember all the rules that made it impossible to be openly gay in the Soviet Union. We need time to understand and accept that we can be who we want to be.