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Ben Steele: Russia’s Violent Intolerance

Lara Zarum talks to Steele, director of the documentary Hunted, about his experience following Russia’s brutal anti-gay vigilante groups.

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A 2013 London protest against Putin's anti-gay laws.
Image from Flickr user lewishamdreamer.

By Lara Zarum

On June 30, 2013, Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, signed into law a now-infamous bill prohibiting “propaganda of nontraditional sexual practices” to minors. In the West, it became known as the anti-gay law. Homosexuality was legalized in Russia twenty-one years ago, shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union. But since 2006, when Moscow barred people from staging a pride parade, hostility toward gay people has steadily increased. In 2010, the European Court of Human Rights fined Russia for repeatedly banning pride parades; Moscow’s municipal government responded in 2012 by banning them for the next 100 years. The State Duma, Russia’s lower house of Parliament, has even proposed a bill that would make it legal to take children away from households where one or both parents are gay.

This hostile atmosphere has left gay people in Russia in an increasingly vulnerable state. It’s estimated that only 1 percent of gays in Russia are out. A Pew study released in 2013 showed that 74 percent of Russians do not believe society should accept homosexuality. Another study showed that 72 percent find homosexuality morally unacceptable—while only 44 percent felt the same way about abortion.

A new documentary from HBO, Hunted: The War Against Gays in Russia, takes a street-level view of the conflict. Directed by Ben Steele and narrated by actor Matt Bomer, the doc follows vigilante gangs that have sprouted up in response to the law, gangs that lure gay people through social media and then humiliate, shame, and physically abuse them, recording the events and posting videos online. These videos are a badge of honor for the vigilante groups, who, like much of the Russian public, equate homosexuality with pedophilia.

I met Steele, who is from London, at HBO’s headquarters on the edge of Bryant Park in Manhattan. He was still on a high from his appearance on The Daily Show the night before. We spoke about his experience tagging along with the notorious vigilante groups.

—Lara Zarum for Guernica

Guernica: How did this project come about? Had you gone to Russia before?

Ben Steele: Well, I speak Russian and I’ve lived in Russia. I actually lived in Russia during the time of the Soviet Union. I wanted to make a film that was really going to expose and reveal the truth about what’s happening in Russia, about the way in which gay people are being targeted and the way in which vigilantes have been attacking them and the way the state has been repressing the LGBT community. I thought the most interesting film to make was through the eyes of the vigilantes. That’s how we begin the film and that’s really the backbone, if you like, of the film. And I think that’s why the film is so shocking. If we just met gay people and had maybe seen some of those horrific YouTube clips, I don’t know if that would have had the same impact. I think meeting the vigilantes, spending time with them, just makes it so much more visceral.

Guernica: Watching these groups is like a splash of cold water on your face, especially because you keep yourself out of the film. What was behind that choice?

Ben Steele: I think Matt Bomer just gives the most fantastic read, and I’m thrilled that he’s done it. It’s obviously personal to him and it resonates with him. I think it’s right that I am not all over this film. Sometimes that’s appropriate and sometimes it’s not. I think for this film, I wanted to capture the unfiltered truth of what’s happening and to let the audience decide. And I explained to everybody who I filmed with, “Yes, I’m an outsider, yes, this show is going to be broadcast around the world, outside of Russia, but I want the outside world to hear what you think.” And that’s what they agreed to and signed up for and I think that’s what I’ve delivered.

The vigilante groups believe that they’re representing the views of the silent majority who are by and large homophobic through ignorance. And they also believe that they have the support of the state.

The access that I gained with the vigilante groups, there’s this sort of duality I suppose, which is on the one hand they’re proud of what they do. They believe that they’re representing the views of the silent majority who are by and large homophobic through ignorance. And they also believe that they have the support of the state. But at the same time they know I’m from the West, and in the West homosexuality is accepted and they almost think of homosexuality as a Western import to Russia. So there’s an element of mistrust. But because I speak Russian, because I’m an open, honest guy, I’m able to communicate what it is I’m trying to achieve. There wasn’t any cunning on my part. I put my cards on the table and they accepted that and signed up for that.

The access I gained was very much tag-along access. I literally didn’t know what I was filming the next day or later that day, and as a filmmaker you do try and control what you’re doing. That wasn’t the case for this one—it was like, “Meet me here at X o’clock,” and sometimes they’d be there and sometimes they wouldn’t be there. I’d just literally tag along with them and sort of disappear in the background. It was only me filming. I was a one-man band. I had a fantastic local fixer and I had a driver, but I held the camera and I did the sound recording and I shot it, so I could disappear, basically. But of course there are moments when they try and eject me from the room.

Guernica: Right, like the scene where one of these groups lures a gay man over to their apartment, and they tell you to go into another room. How did it feel to be present there and not be able to intervene?

Ben Steele: You know, this is happening, week in and week out. This is the bread and butter of what the vigilantes do. So it was unexpected when the guy turned up at that moment in time, but it had crossed my mind that I might find myself in a situation like that. I forced my way back into that room. It was instinctive, in a way, my response to the situation.

Guernica: What was going through your mind?

Ben Steele: Well, you know, “This shit is going down.” This is happening right now, right here, on the other side of that door. I need to film that. And I need to film that because the outside world needs to know that it’s happening, that dark things happen in this world and that closing your eyes doesn’t make those dark things go away. In fact, opening your eyes is the only way to tackle problems. And because I was scared for him. There were thirteen men in that room, baying for a fight. The atmosphere in there was electric. They were so pumped. You could smell the testosterone.

Guernica: You mentioned that homosexuality is seen as a Western import. How much of this push against gay people is a push against the Western world itself?

Ben Steele: Basically what happened was that homosexuality was legalized in 1993. But it was legalized by [former president Boris] Yeltsin in the wave of the post-Soviet Union collapse, the sort of Western euphoria. And with that Western euphoria came kind of cowboy capitalism and there was a sort of wholesale embrace of Western values. Today, there’s a pick and mix approach, a kind of Russian exceptionalism, whereby we can take the material wealth, but we’re not so sure about the human rights issues, because that’s a Western import. There’s a rollback in general on human rights right now, unfortunately, spearheaded by Putin and the anti-gay propaganda law. The wording’s very loose, but basically, what’s illegal now is the promotion of non-traditional relationships to people under the age of eighteen. And promotion means positive or neutral references. It demonizes gay people and it also links homosexuality with child abuse and with danger to children. Of course, Putin famously said in Sochi in the lead-up to the Olympics, “Gay athletes, gay spectators, you’re welcome, but leave our kids alone.”

Guernica: And a lot of these people who you film are part of this group Occupy Pedophilia, right?

Ben Steele: Right. They claim, completely falsely, that there’s a link between pedophilia and homosexuality.

Minorities are being persecuted and scapegoated and that seems to be Putin’s agenda right now. He can appear to be the man who’s giving the people what they allegedly want.

Guernica: The actual definition of what constitutes so-called “propaganda” promoting gay people is unclear. The law seems to be almost as much about thought control as it is about controlling people’s actions or behavior.

Ben Steele: Really good point, because it’s not like thousands of cases have been coming in front of the courts. It’s much more about the messages that are being signaled, and about the state’s role. Surely in a healthy democracy, there are checks and balances so the minorities are protected. That’s what a healthy democracy should be about, but here, minorities are being persecuted and scapegoated and that seems to be Putin’s agenda right now. He can appear to be the man who’s giving the people what they allegedly want. Let’s not forget this anti-propaganda law was passed by the state Duma, which is a democratically elected body. It was unanimously upheld, 436 to nothing. One abstention. Come on.

Guernica: It’s interesting, because in 2006, a similar bill failed to pass, and the Deputy Prime Minister at the time pointed out that such a bill would violate the Russian Constitution and the European Convention on human rights. What’s changed between then and now?

Ben Steele: Well, I supposed Putin’s become more autocratic. And autocratic leaders need enemies.

Guernica: How widespread are the anti-gay vigilante groups?

Ben Steele: Occupy Pedophilia, which is the largest anti-gay organization, is active in over thirty Russian cities, so they’re widespread. Gay people live in fear right across the country. They’re more active in larger cities, because that’s where the gay community is more active. Initially we thought about trying to film outside the areas where camera crews traditionally go to, but we realized pretty quickly that the gay community is so deep underground and so closeted that it would be incredibly hard to tap into them. Having said that, there are attacks documented right across Russia. One gruesome attack you see in the film, I think it was originally filmed in Novosibirsk. He’s undressed and they put a gun to his head and he’s forced to say that he’s gay, and they force him to rape himself with a bottle. I’ve seen that footage and it’s disgusting. That’s not happening in a major cosmopolitan city like Moscow or St. Petersburg.

The law is giving them permission. It’s like saying, “These people are second-class citizens—do what you wish with them.”

Guernica: Russia was hardly a haven for gay people before the 2013 law passed. How much of the vigilantism you filmed has sprouted up in response to this law?

Ben Steele: It gives them immunity, so there’s a clear link. The law was passed last year, and that’s when you see a spike in vigilante action, that’s when you see the groups being formed. It’s like the law is giving them permission. It’s like saying, “These people are second-class citizens—do what you wish with them.”

They call it safaris, that’s their term. The vigilantes, they “go on safari.”

Guernica: The film is called Hunted, and the word is repeated in the narration many times. Was this a term used by the victims or perpetrators in Russia?

Ben Steele: We weren’t going to call this film Hunted. That came from the material. Dima [a victim of a homophobic attack] says, “Hunting season is open, and we are the hunted.” And we were like, fuck yeah. You said it, man. They call it safaris, that’s their term. The vigilantes, they “go on safari.”

Guernica: Right, and none of these people wanted their faces blurred. I assume they gave you their real names.

Ben Steele: They’re proud of what they do. They fear no repercussions. Those videos, and many, many more, get tens of thousands of hits on Russian social media. Normally those videos would be the things that police would be using as evidence.

Guernica: It seems like the church is also giving these groups their blessing—there’s a scene in your film where an Orthodox priest speaks about the evils of homosexuality. How much influence does the church have over public opinion?

Ben Steele: The church has a huge sway over public opinion, it’s Russia’s moral compass. They have huge authority. Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, called gay marriage a sign of the apocalypse.

Guernica: Watching the film, I wondered if you had perhaps tried to speak to a government official or was that just completely out of the question in terms of access?

Ben Steele: It was a conscious decision. It wasn’t that we were denied permission. I didn’t want to talk to people in the government because I wanted to make a film that was about people on the ground. This is not about policy makers. Policy makers influence everybody but they’re slightly removed. I think the film is more visceral and more powerful for not having shots of Red Square and shots of the Kremlin and the stars, and an interview with some Russian MP. They have been interviewed many times before, those guys, and it’s good that the media focuses attention on those people, and all discussion on this issue is to be welcomed. But I was trying to make something different, and I think the film is powerful because we do something different, we do something that feels a little unexpected and surprising.

I think on one level everybody knows that to be gay in Russia probably isn’t as cool as it is to be gay in New York. To really make it hit home, to really thump you in the solar plexus, that’s what we wanted to do. I think had we interviewed lots of politicians we wouldn’t have had that.

Guernica: This movie was pretty depressing to watch; it looks like such a hopeless situation. Do you see any signs that maybe this wave of violence will lead to a wave of opposition?

Ben Steele: I think the first step in terms of what do we do, what is the action that we take, is we watch the film. I think we encourage people to watch the film, because knowledge is power. Keep it on the agenda. Quite rightly, the world focused its attention on this issue at the time of the Sochi Olympics, but not much has been said since. It was fantastic to see major corporations like Google using the rainbow flag at the time of the Olympics, that was brilliant, but now that’s not happening. So it’s wonderful that HBO have decided to screen this, because it’s putting it back on the agenda. This is what it’s all about. It’s about telling people, “we don’t like what’s happening” and expressing solidarity with gay people in Russia. I genuinely think the Russian authorities were taken by surprise by the strength of the reaction at the time of the Sochi Olympics. There was a law that was proposed that sought to strengthen the existing law, which actually sought to take children away from same-sex couples. It was stalled because of the world’s reaction.

Guernica: Do you think that law will be passed?

Ben Steele: Well, nobody thought the law was going to pass the first time around.

Lara Zarum is a graduate student in the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. Her work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, Slate, and the L.A. Review of Books, among other publications. You can follow her on Twitter: @larazarum

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