Before traveling to Kiev, Ukraine in late October to attend the Molodist International Film Festival with my documentary Mala Mala, which focuses on transgender cultures in Puerto Rico and their fight for civil rights, several close friends and family members pleaded with me not to go. "So, you have a death wish?" a friend asked me. "You know, there's a war over there," another said.
Meanwhile, an article in the New York Times, reporting that Putin said he could "take Kiev in two weeks" was forwarded to my inbox. Perhaps it was a combination of ignorance and boyish pride, but these moments only fanned the flames of my desire to be there.
I landed on a Tuesday with April Carrion, a drag queen and one of the stars of my documentary. The festival requested that she attend, as her participation on Season 6 of RuPaul's Drag Race made her somewhat known in Ukraine (queer kids in Kiev actually change their IP addresses to access Logo.com and watch the show). We were slated to screen Mala Mala as the closing night film of the queer competition at the festival, and it was April's first time out of the country. It was to be a true baptism by fire, in both a literal and figurative sense.
Our second night in Kiev, disturbing news came back to the hotel where we were staying—someone had burnt down the cinema housing the LGBT films.
Gradually more and more news made its way to us, in a frenetic and fragmented fashion. "They burnt the theater down while people were inside." "Everyone is OK, but all the films are lost," we were told. Many were quick to recognize it as an anti-gay attack, while others developed a theory that Russian agents were sent to wreak havoc on an international cultural event to make the capital city of Ukraine look unstable and anti-humanitarian. Remembering that Putin is ex-KGB, this theory sounded less paranoid than entirely plausible.
Even today, with the suspects in custody, the small amount of information that exists is steamrolled by news of the war in the east, and the world may never know the true motives of the two men who started the fire. Russian media outlets portray the event one way, Ukrainian media another, and neither add up to what I've heard from the ground. A small pro-equality demonstration was held outside the theater the following morning, while most local media framed the fire as something which began over a real estate dispute (a story which has since been debunked).
Unfortunately, the fire at Zhovten cinema (Kiev's oldest movie theater) was not the only event to threaten the safety of the LGBT film competition.
More disturbing news came to us in a similar manner the following night. "A riot just interrupted the screening of a queer documentary," festival attendees told us. The film, Max and the Others, by director (and friend) Richard Rossmann, had been interrupted when a group of anti-gay demonstrators gathered at the theater, clashed with police, and demanded to view the content of the film to determine whether or not it contained "pornographic material." As the clash outside the theater escalated, the screening was suspended and the audience evacuated.
Speaking with Richard over breakfast the next morning, he was still visibly shaken. He feared for his safety, and he feared for mine. "Make sure you know where the security guards are stationed, make sure you know where the emergency exits are, and if April is planning to come in drag, do everything you can to ensure her protection."
This was the first time in my life I found myself in the middle of the battle over media and representation. I had been filming for years in one of the most dangerous areas in Puerto Rico, only to find myself facing the threat of real violence somewhere else and in a place as foreign to me as Mars. On my mind sat the safety of April, of my girlfriend who had come with me to the festival (and who could probably take on more Ukrainian thugs than myself), and of the audience that would still be courageous enough to attend our screening. This is the epitome of what it means to have created a film like Mala Mala. Violence against queer people occurs all over the world, but in the United States the perception (although usually naive) of law and order shields us from the realities of such hate. It was terrifying, and I had to act. But how?
The next day I was slated to speak at the American Embassy in Kiev. Entering through the doors, and passing through several check points only highlighted the privilege of security itself. While real soldiers were waging war in the east, a battle at the volume of a whisper was occurring in the movie theaters, and here I was with a security badge entering through the military-grade steel doors of the American Embassy. It felt like I was entering a bunker while those not lucky enough to be born with an American passport were left outside and vulnerable. After the pandemonium of the past few days, I couldn't imagine anyone would show up to the event.
To my surprise, the resilience of the Ukrainian people manifested itself by filling the seats of our conference room in the Embassy. About 30 people, including American diplomats and representatives of different LGBT activist organizations, gathered with respectful anticipation of what myself and April (who appeared at the Embassy in full drag) would say.
I spoke of the need for inclusivity in the fight for equal rights, highlighting how the gay and feminist agendas of the '70s and '80s left their trans brothers and sisters behind in pursuit of more assimilationist tactics. I talked about how pragmatic issues, such as same-sex marriage, still dominate the LGBT agenda today, and how they're minimal achievements in relation to the larger cause. April brought the comforting, much-needed humor, at one point literally saying, "I mean, what am I doing here?! This is crazy! I'm at the American Embassy in Kiev in drag and it feels amazing!"
The discussion that followed was a mix of personal questions as well as larger, more general inquires about the film. It was then that it hit me: This is community-building; this is what it looks like to form a collective in a time of crisis; and the laughter that broke through the heaviness I carried with me into the room was a reminder of how necessary our in inherent vibrancy is, especially in dark times.
This was my education in global politics and what cultural representation has to do with it.
No matter what the motives of the thugs who burnt the theater to the ground may be, whether or not the skinheads that interrupted the screening of Richard's film were actually there with the intent to shield eyes from "pornography," both actions were direct attacks on queer media. To me, these violent efforts only highlight the need for media that represents the under-represented, it only motivates the activist within me to keep working in this fashion, and it solidifies my identity as an artist who is committed to social change.
The people of Kiev are living in dangerous, complicated times. As Putin encroaches on the east, and rumors of a western invasion are discussed with hushed voices, they are both patriotic and defeatist. "There's not much we can do really," a Ukrainian student with family in Crimea told me. They are hopeful even when it is most audacious to be so, they are persistent in spite of the ugliness that hovers over them from Putin's Russia. More than anyone, they have taught me what it truly means to produce the media that people seek to destroy. The burning of a theater is no different than a book burning, and the fact that bigots directly target the information conveyed in queer media only underwrites the importance of creating more.
I pulled April from our screening, and told her she could come to the Q&A only if she felt safe. Knowing her celebrity status, I couldn't take any chances. As I walked into the theater, I was greeted by the biggest audience since the fire, a nearly packed house filled with the desire to see themselves represented on the big screen. As the film played, my nerves intensified. Keenly aware of the emergency exits and my arm on my partners shoulder, my attention turned every time the door to the theater opened.
We made it through the film without incident. As the lights came up after the closing credits, April Carrion strutted into the theater, in full drag, like the fearless soldier that she is, ready to take on the barrage of questions and praise that ensued. She was more popular in Kiev than either of us could have imagined, and the amount of times she was thanked for appearing in the flesh in spite of all that had happened taught us both an important lesson in how vital is it to show up and stare, unwavering, into the face of discrimination.
As the fight for queer equality in the Unites States becomes more and more talked about as something that has already happened, it's important to remember that it hasn't. Legal protections all too often lead the attitudinal, subjective shifts in perspective required for real social change, and violence is still a much-accepted option for bigots to express their distaste for otherness in every culture all over the world. Creating and supporting media which embraces otherness is to join in the push for understanding. The festival programmers, the audience members, and the media-makers are fighters on this front, and to stand with them is to stand for justice and humanitarianism. The Molodist Film Festival, going to great lengths to support film which elevates voices that may not typically reach your ears, is one of many such spaces seeking to further the fight for understanding, and I forever remain in their corner.
As April shouted during her performance at the closing night after-party, a sentiment which succinctly captures the transnational mash-up which had solidified over the course of the week: "Viva Puerto Rico! Viva Ukraine!"