Gay film wins jury prize at Russian Film Festival
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The topical Russian law banning 'gay propaganda' has caused international outcry and concern for the Russian LGBT community. It was therefore unexpected that a film with a gay storyline would feature at London’s Russian Film Festival. Thankfully festival organisers decided to push cultural boundaries at the controversial screenings of Winter Journey.
The directorial debut from Sergei Taramaev and Liubov Lvova follows the unlikely relationship between gifted music student Erik (Aleksei Frandetti) and intimidating petty criminal Lyokha (Evgeny Tkachuk). With the storyline centred on gay characters and underground culture it was surprising the film was even granted approval by the Culture Ministry in Moscow. Following a prize winning run at smaller Russian Film festivals, the film suffered rejection from Russia’s biggest film festival, Kinotaur. Was this through fear of losing funding because of Putin’s new law?
The film gets it title from Schubert’s song cycle, Winterreise which Erik is perfecting for a musical audition. The song cycle tells the story of love, rejection and haunting memories. The clear source of Winter Journey’s plot where operatic music aids an emotional connection with the lead characters.
Erik is a talented opera singer, a likeable character but with elements of a destructive personality. With the pressure of the audition mounting he is often found swilling from “the pretty” vodka bottle and not taking life too seriously. In contrast Lyokha is an unpleasant character who causes chaos on the streets of Moscow. As we are introduced to the beanie wearing thug we see him fighting and stealing anything and everything. In one hilarious scene he even steals a pet Chihuahua, as you do.
The men encounter a surreal meeting on a bus when Lyokha is involved in a fight. As Lyokha is arrested they end up with an object belonging to one another which leads them to meet again. Erik develops a fascination with the man that steals his phone, and even with comments like “fucking fags. Nothing sacred” Lyokha finds himself at an underground gay party. Both characters feel lost in the world and through desire to block out reality with drugs and alcohol they appear to develop an unlikely bond. As the plot develops it’s questioned whether Lyokha’s true personality is “coming out” or if he’s just using Erik for the constant flow of intoxicants.
Their personalities appear to implant on each another as Erik alienates those around him Lyokha loses the beanie and lightens up. Lyokha battles his feelings during a touching scene at Erik’s audition using the music as a release for his emotion. Post audition there’s an impressive sequence in a gay club where Lyokha dances shirtless caked in eye makeup. The cinematography resembles a camp eighties music video showcasing the gay subculture. As the camera focuses in on Lyokha dancing and letting go we wonder if we’re witnessing the true Lyokha or a drugged up delusion. The characters share a brief kiss however this is the only intimacy featured in the film, focusing more on their volatile relationship and Lyokha’s questionable motives.
Although gripping the film is too surreal in parts resulting in unanswered questions. Although representing alienation from his peers it’s questionable whether Erik would betray his friends in the way he does. The raw emotion from the lead characters however draws you in so much that you forget the film is subtitled. It’s no wonder why Evgeny Tkachuk won Special Jury Prize for Best Acting at Window on to Europe Film Festival earlier this year. The cinematography uses the snow effectively to explore Moscow’s streets and architecture painting a picture between the classes. Members of Erik’s harem live in mansions housing jewellery from Royal descent. Lyokha in contrast sleeps in derelict buildings fighting (literally) for survival on the streets.
The London Lion Award is presented to the best director of the Best Film of the Russian Film Festival. The jury is made up by The Daily Telegraph’s Robbie Collin, film producer Chris Curling, Catherine Bray editor of Film4.com and Iain McLeod, film booker at Empire Cinemas. The jury is chaired by Dutch filmmaker Jos Stelling. During the closing proceedings last night it was announced that Winter Journey bagged the award which represents London’s perspective on Russian cinematography.
GT gives the film a 4/5 and the result a 5/5!
Words: Benjamin Spence (@BenSuspender)