Under the rainbow: how directors make LGBT films in countries hostile to gay rights – The Guardian

Under the rainbow: how directors make LGBT films in countries hostile to gay rights

From bodyguards on set in Georgia to lies about the script in Peru, how do filmmakers in repressive regimes get round the hostility to gay movies?

Retablo, directed by Alvaro Delgado Aparicio, is part of the Barbican’s Forbidden Colours, featuring films from countries hostile to LGBT rights.

Retablo, directed by Alvaro Delgado Aparicio, is part of the Barbican’s Forbidden Colours, featuring films from countries hostile to LGBT rights.

Once Pride in London ends this weekend, the banks, supermarkets and sandwich chains will drop their rainbow-coloured logos and revert to business as usual. Perfect timing, then, for the Barbican, in the east of the capital, to launch Forbidden Colours, a series of films made in countries hostile to the rights of LGBT people. The season begins this month with Retablo, an understated but powerful study of the relationship between a teenager and his closeted father in the Peruvian Andes.

When I phone the film’s 43-year-old writer-director, Alvaro Delgado Aparicio, I am expecting to hear tales of thwarted funding and industry homophobia. On the contrary, he tells me, the money came easily: a chunk of it from Peru, the rest from Europe. Surely, then, there was some backlash when the movie opened? After all, Alberto de Belaunde, one of only two out gay members of the country’s majority conservative Congress, recently described a proposed bill for marriage equality and gender identity as “doomed”. Hardly an auspicious climate for a film such as Retablo. Wrong again: it has played for six weeks to full houses. Perhaps, then, Aparicio has his own war stories about coming out in a part of the world where, as a 2017 CNN report put it, homosexuality is legal but deadly. “Oh, no,” he says. “I’m not gay.”

Alvaro Delgado-Aparicio, director of Retablo.

Alvaro Delgado-Aparicio, director of Retablo. Photograph: Larry Busacca/Getty Images

Dig a little deeper and it transpires that Retablo could only be made by sidestepping some intransigent attitudes in the communities where it was shot. Aparicio spent a year living among villagers in the Andes; securing permission to shoot there required something less than full disclosure. “There’s a lot of conformity, and it’s very conservative and religious. In the deeper parts, there is no police. There’s the rural police and they have their own norms. I heard some, um, complicated stories about teenagers who were gay. People who had been beaten, tied up and left in public places to be humiliated. These things are still happening.”

Even the discussion of sexuality was off-limits. “At the start, we would tell people the story of the film and they just didn’t want to talk about it, they didn’t want to listen. In some places, it was dangerous so we just said, ‘It’s about a father and son’, because we were afraid of how they would react. But we shot the film and many of the villagers ended up being extras.” Later this year, he is planning to take Retablo to the communities where it was made. But if those people were unable even to mention sexuality, how will they feel about appearing in a movie that shows a boy witnessing his father being masturbated, albeit discreetly, by another man? “We’ll see. It’s very important to me that we go back and have that conversation and find out what happens.”

The other title already confirmed in the Barbican season comes from Romania, where homosexuality was not decriminalised until 2001. Several Conversations About a Very Tall Girl is a lesbian love story that exudes a Nouvelle Vague freshness despite being confined largely to apartment interiors and laptop screens. “The LGBT community in Bucharest has very few safe spaces to meet,” explains the film’s 42-year-old writer-director, Bogdan Theodor Olteanu, who, like Aparacio, is not gay himself. “Their life has to be very much online.” One of the main characters, raised in the city, is comfortable with her sexuality, while the other carries with her from a smalltown upbringing a raft of inhibitions and neuroses. “It’s a film about fear and what it does to people. In Romanian society, there is a fear of authority left over from communism and that has implications on many levels – it destroys people’s attempts to be happy as well as their ability to express opinions and hold politicians to account.”

The Romanian film Several Conversations About a Very Tall Girl is being shown at the Barbican.

The Romanian film Several Conversations About a Very Tall Girl is being shown at the Barbican.

State-owned cinemas in Bucharest refused to show Olteanu’s film, although he points out that even venues that agree to programme a movie can still sabotage it in subtle ways. “They might only give you two screenings a day, very early in the morning. Then they will say: ‘Oh, it didn’t sell any tickets.’”

Other releases in Bucharest have fared even worse. Last year, Robin Campillo’s award-winning Aids drama 120 Beats Per Minute had one of its screenings disrupted by rightwing protesters. A group calling itself Christian Orthodox invaded the cinema and sang the national anthem while brandishing banners with slogans such as “Romania isn’t Sodom” and “Hey Soros, leave them kids alone” (a reference to the Hungarian-American liberal philanthropist George Soros).

Similarly targeted was a Romanian film, Soldiers: Story from Ferentari, which depicts the unlikely romance between a man recently estranged from his girlfriend and an ex-convict from the Roma community. Soldiers is shot with a Fassbinder-esque eye for the social and economic pressures that shape our most intimate relationships, but try telling that to the protesters, who played rock music to drown out the movie. Its 35-year old Serbian director, Ivana Mladenovic, shrugs when I ask her about the incident. “I wasn’t there. I heard there were supposed to be undercover police taking care of it and making sure the film wasn’t stopped, but fights still broke out. It wasn’t anything more than that.”

Although Several Conversations About a Very Tall Girl was spared such protests, Olteanu encountered a wariness among some actors to audition for it. “From my shortlist of eight women, four declined because they were afraid of what a gay role might do to their career. One said to me: ‘I work with a lot of older directors in the theatre and some of them may exclude me if I do this.’”

Levan Akin had to have bodyguards on the set of his film And Then We Danced.

Levan Akin had to have bodyguards on the set of his film And Then We Danced. Photograph: Larry Busacca/Getty Images

The gay Swedish-Georgian film-maker Levan Akin, whose drama And Then We Danced premiered at Cannes this year and has the distinction of being the first explicitly gay-themed Georgian movie, factored the protection of cast members into his budget. “Some of them aren’t in Georgia any more,” the 39-year-old says cheerfully. “We would rather be safe than sorry, so we budgeted for them to not be around for a while after the movie came out. They’re having fun at the moment travelling in Europe.” Perhaps they will even have enjoyed the sort of inclusive festivities that would have been denied them had they stayed at home: Tblisi’s first-ever Pride celebration was cancelled last month in the face of rightwing opposition and a lack of state protection. Hardly surprising in a country that the World Values Survey ranked the third most homophobic in the world.

The making of Akin’s film, which explores the attraction between two men in a traditional Georgian dance company, was littered with obstacles. “The Georgian National Film Center did not support it. Even retroactively after we got into Cannes, it refused to express support. We also met with Nino Sukhishvili from the Georgian National Ballet before shooting, and her reaction was: ‘Why can’t he fall in love with a girl? There are no gay people in Georgian dance.’ We could have really used her help, but she wouldn’t support us. Not only that but we found out that she called other dance companies and banned dancers from appearing in the movie, telling them they would never dance again. And the effect spread. We would lose important locations at a few days’ notice because suddenly there were ‘renovations’.”

Threats from a rightwing group resulted in the production employing bodyguards on set, while scenes shot in public spaces required a convincing cover story. “We told people it was a movie about a French guy drawn to the beauty of Georgian culture,” he laughs. “It all bolstered us. It made us feel the movie was very important. People in the west may have this complacent feeling: ‘Oh, that fight is over.’ But it’s not. In most places in the world, it is far from over. And in Georgia, it’s an extreme situation. On one hand, there is the Orthodox religious community that says the gays and the paedophiles are taking over – that’s also the narrative Russia is pushing. And then there are the kids coming up, fighting against that, some of whom are in my movie. The future of Georgia belongs to them, not to the old, bearded guys who try to beat them up. I wanted to make a film about how you can own and redefine your culture rather than leaving it to the bigots.” He claims he has already detected a change among people involved with the film. “One of the actors had a message from his aunt, who used to be homophobic, telling him not to listen to the haters. And some people in smaller roles on the film were a bit prejudiced at first but now they feel differently. We’re changing a few minds. I hope we can change even more.”

Retablo is at the Barbican, London EC1, on 9 and 16 July; Several Conversations About a Very Tall Girl is on 22 October. And Then We Danced will be released next year

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