It’s one thing to stage a film on a set. It’s another to actually live it.
Paul Rice did just that. The Irish-born director, who, at 30, now lives in San Francisco, felt a moral calling to after hearing stories of the suppression of queer people in Russia. Rice grabbed his camera, his boyfriend Liam, and set off to document the lives of LGBTQ Russians. His three-week trip consisted of stops in some of Russia’s largest cities via the Trans-Siberian railroad. The resulting film, A Worm in the Heart, depicts a minority reviled and scapegoated by a corrupt political system in the name of protecting the public from homosexual propaganda. Had Rice, his boyfriend, or any of their interview subjects been caught, they could have ended up in prison, or worse.
Queerty caught up with Rice just ahead of the world premiere of A Worm in the Heart at the Santa Barbara Film Festival January 17. It will play the festival circuit throughout this year.
So, this fundamentally is a journey story, both for you, and for the activists you encountered. At exactly what point did you, an Irishman living in the US, decide you needed to make a film about Russia?
PR: I think, it’s a strange thing. At the age I’m at, I grew up in Ireland at a time of change for the LGBTQ community in the western world. Being gay was criminalized in much of the western world. I think that’s very indicative of where society was with the LGBTQ community. So as I grew up with my own relationship to my sexuality, a lot of the world did as well.
I think it’s quite exhilarating to participate in the marriage referendum in Ireland to get greater rights in Ireland. But there was a certain hollowness. It’s very difficult to see society debate who you are. It’s quite jarring. It made me look further to the rest of the world. And really, in that kind of search, there is no place more infamous than Russia. And there is no public debate in Russia. Debate has been long settled.
Part of me couldn’t really fathom that. As you said, I’m an Irish-American emigree. That gave me access to Ireland. I lived in the UK as well. And I’ve lived in America. So I have a slightly western global view of how countries act and are different from one another. There’s something that drew me to Russia. I wanted to understand how the largest country in the world was debating how it is to be an LGBTQ person.
I don’t want to understate the great personal risk you and Liam took in making this film. How long were you in Russia?
And you took precautions to make it look like the two of you were straight, which was probably necessary. Did anyone ever question or suspect you?
Yeah, definitely. We did our best to stay slightly apart from one another, even in hotels. We would meet each other in the lobby at different times so it didn’t look like we were doing everything in tandem. I think, particularly at the time of year we went, in the dead of winter, Russia doesn’t get a lot of visitors. Siberia gets visitors rarely ever. I think we stood out instantly as outsiders. We were keenly aware that we could see people watching us closely and trying to decode who we were. One such example: my boyfriend Liam went to a shop to buy a vape. The shop attendant wanted to start talking to him: “Who are you, why are you here?” And he wanted to keep in touch. We’d changed all our social media profiles, but not our WhatsApp profiles.
So when Liam took his number down and he called him, Liam realized his picture was one of he and I kissing. So he froze, and in real-time tried to delete the picture. But I think it popped up on the shop attendant’s phone. Liam said the air in the room changed very quickly.
I think in the process we were getting catfished quite a bit. We were getting a lot of emails from people being quite cagey. One man got quite far. We were arranging to meet with him, and I started to dig deeper. I searched his email address, and found it connected to another email address that was on this Orthodox Christian dating site. I managed to find his profile talking about purifying the world. He was trying to entrap us.
We were very paranoid. Due to that intense paranoia, and due to our planning, we were safe on our trip. We were trying to research people as much as we could.
That’s lucky and wise. What would have happened had law enforcement found out about you?
We could have been arrested and fined. We took steps, so immediately after we would meet with someone, I would take out the SD card from the camera and hide it in my shoe. Then I would put another SD card with pictures of historical sites we’d visited in, so if we were stopped by authorities and they searched our camera [we’d be fine]. Due to the gay propaganda law, westerners fall under it as much as Russians do. We could have been fined or jailed.
We should be clear about the way the law works there. In essence, it doesn’t prohibit homosexuality exactly. Just public showing of it. Do I have that right?
Exactly. Being LGBTQ is absolutely not illegal in Russia. But the propaganda law really cloaks the country in a dark form of homophobia and transphobia. Pride parades are out of the question. Having rainbow attire in public is out of the question. A gay couple holding hands in public would be seen as being propaganda. So it forces people to go underground. People aren’t sure with what they can get away with.
It strikes me as ironic that queer people in Russia would be so oppressed and still have underground networks operating. It’s quite impressive. How exactly does that work? How do they evade the law, having offices, counseling centers, medical offices…
A lot of these organizations like the LGBT Network or Coming Out have offices, but they operate under a fake name to avoid harassment. Everything is cloaked. The clubs that we went to were behind locked doors. At one point in the film, Dima, a queer man we met who suffered multiple attacks said something very interesting. He said, “Russian society, we’re just used to things continuously getting worse.”
As things get worse in Russia, Russians have this built-in factor to survive. I think that toughness in Russia goes both ways. Russia has an authoritarian feel to it, but it has a rebel spirit as well. The LGBTQ population in Russia has been tested for decades, since Stalin’s era. They’re used to getting on with it. Despite how heavy and awful it is there, and despite how much I worry for the LGBTQ community, I do think they will always persevere. They’re some of the most resilient people I’ve ever met.
That’s encouraging. Now, when it comes to the Siberian drag clubs—and you do show these very modern venues–how do they evade the law? They seemed quite westernized, even more so than places in Moscow or St. Petersberg.
We were somewhat invited. We met with members of Rainbow House, an LGBTQ organization. After meeting with them, they said “There’s this club that’s our crown jewel.” So that’s the club you saw with drag performers. Moments like that…I think Russia will be fine. These people are thriving. It’s telling how empty the club was, but people were there. People were dancing.
One thing that really strikes me is how alike the US and Russia are in so many ways. Provincial, conservative (but not really), willfully stupid at times but capable of incredible feats. And tough. Do you think that’s true?
I think Russia and the United States and other countries too, like the United Kingdom, have massive, national architecture. The emblems, the eagles—there is immense national pride in Russia and in America. They buy into that patriotism, which isn’t a completely unhealthy thing. It’s good to love your country. But countries that have massive structures and myths of what it is to be Russian, or to be American—if you buy into that wholeheartedly, it means you have to subscribe to some things that are unsavory. In Russia, it’s a strong, vast country that is deeply masculine.
It’s a deeply masculine culture. To be LGBTQ is a rejection in many ways of that masculinity. It’s not acceptable. It doesn’t buy into the national myth. That’s really important in Russia, because the country has undergone so many changes in the past few decades. When the USSR collapsed, that was a huge shame and embarrassment for the nation. So they had to rebuild themselves. It’s not surprising, but people start to yearn for the USSR, because that’s when Russia was “great.” People want to return to Russia as this great force. Anything that gets in the way of that isn’t ok. Being LGBTQ is an “other.” Politicians since Stalin have used the LGBTQ as a scapegoat as the internal enemy undermining the state. They’re not tough. They’re not strong. They’re not masculine.
Along those lines, every nation has its character.
One thing true throughout Russian history, even predating the Soviet era, is that the Russians kind of like autocracy. They gravitate towards authoritarians, seeing them as strong. They like to see political enemies and dissidents crushed. Where do you think that comes from?
Strength. It’s a show of strength. If you poison someone in broad daylight, you’ve got balls. You’re a strong guy. It also means you have a lot of other guys willing to protect you. So maybe that means you can wrangle the largest country in the world. Russia is the bear—that’s how they think of themselves. So it’s anyone that can wrangle the bear. That’s why you get Vladimir Putin with his shirt off.
Showing off his saggy man-boobs.
It also seems like Putin has really modeled himself on George W. Bush—using wedge issues, illegal invasions, wiretapping. Do you think that’s the case? I mean, in America during much of the Bush-era, so much of the public turned a blind eye to his illegal dealings, just thinking of him as this great conservative leader.
I’m not sure if I’d say Putin has modeled himself after Bush, or if they all model themselves after each other.
That’s one thing we wanted to underline. We’re not pointing a finger at Russia saying “This is what you’re doing wrong.” That could easily Europe or the west. We’ve just moved in different ways, but we often play from the same playbook. Men like Putin or Bush, they know how to manipulate a population. And you’re absolutely right, in that I think Putin has modeled himself after Bush in many ways, but Bush modeled himself after another autocrat. As different as we are, we have many things that are eerily the same.
Are you still in touch with people like Yael & Andrei, Nova and Maia [queer activists]? What’s the state of their lives today?
We’re in touch with most, if not all, of the people in the film. Yal & Andrei got asylum in New York and are coming to the world premiere next weekend in Santa Barbara. We’re delighted to hang out with them. Yal has to be one of the strongest, smartest, people I’ve ever met.
We’re in touch with Maia. We tried to get her a visa to come to the US, but unfortunately, it was denied. Maia is living in Moscow and doing really well. She has her own transgender support group in Russia now. She’s such a resilient person. I find her really inspirational.
Nova is doing well in Austria, but similar to Yal & Andrei, the life of an asylum seeker is a lonely difficult one. You don’t really fit into society. You don’t speak the language. You have immense pressure taken off you, but how do you begin life again?
It’s good they’re keeping up the fight. In making this film, you obviously discovered a level of homophobia we seldom see in the west. How did it make you regard our queer progress here in the US, in Ireland and elsewhere? How did it change you?
It changed me in so many ways. I had done a lot of research, but the second I was in Russia, I felt like I was becoming part of it. I wasn’t reading an article anymore, I was connecting with these people. These people were so generous to us. I think we saw it as a window of opportunity to get their story out there. That was really humbling, and it felt like a lot of responsibility in many ways. A lot of people in Russia want their story out there. We’re so lucky in the west, but the wind can blow many ways, as we see with Trump and Brexit. And I don’t want to draw parallels between Trump, Brexit and the huge humanitarian crisis in Russia. What’s happening in Russia is very real, and it’s been going on for decades.
What’s going on in the west is genuinely dangerous. And that speaks to the fragility of our progress. But I’m very thankful. Society at large in the west has actively decided to take steps together to improve life for the LGBTQ population. Society in the west has decided to move forward. What’s going on in Russia is horrific. The people that I’ve met will always stay with me. I’m so thankful for their strength. In the LGBTQ community, we often lose our heroes—people like Harvey Milk or Marsha P. Johnson. But all over the world we lose our heroes. These people in Russia are putting their lives on the line. They are genuine heroes for what they’re doing.
And they’re patriots.
You make it clear in the film.
They are some of the deepest patriots that Russia has. Russia constantly rebukes them to say they are not patriots, they are not Russians. Despite this massive backlash against them, it doesn’t deter them from loving their own country. They want to make Russia a better place.
You make it clear that change must come from within Russia. How can we in the west help?
What’s difficult is that what it takes to help takes more effort than we’re used to. We’re used to donating to charities, which would be invaluable in Russia. But it is so difficult to donate to charities in Russia because of foreign visa laws. That’s money that could be seen as being a foreign agent, and the [organizations] would be seen as spies and shut down. I think the best thing people can do in the west is to genuinely reach out to your statesmen, your government representatives and put pressure on them. There is a huge humanitarian crisis in Russia. The gay propaganda law is a huge step in the wrong direction. Any future relations that America or the EU has with Russia should be done through the lens of improving its human rights record, which is LGBTQ rights. Offering it as a bargaining chip with trade laws could be a huge part of our dealings with Russia from now on. If enough of us write to our representatives, hopefully, that will enact change.
And protest. Protest in the streets, protest outside Russian embassies to improve human rights. People in Russia are hugely buoyed by that, just to know people care.
A Worm in the Heart debuts at the Santa Barbara Film Festival January 17 and 18.