Actors in film on Russia gay attacks caught up in Ukraine unrest

Renat Shuteev.

PARIS: It was always going to be tough to make a covert, low budget feature film in eastern Ukraine based on the sensitive topic of homophobic attacks in Russia.

But the young French director of "Stand", which has been selected for San Francisco's Frameline LGBT film festival next month, did not count on being caught up in a full-blown political crisis that would personally affect the Russian, Ukrainian and Tatar actors in the film.

Jonathan Taieb's film tells the story of Anton, a gay Russian man played by 27-year-old actor Renat Shuteev who witnesses a homophobic attack.

Aware of the police's indifference, he decides to investigate the hate crime himself, risking his life in the process.

The film comes after Russian President Vladimir Putin last year approved a law banning the promotion of homosexuality to minors, which activists say has contributed to anti-gay sentiment and hate crimes in the country.

Taieb, a 27-year-old filmmaker, decided against filming the movie in Russia with the country's strict visa requirements, and settled instead for Ukraine's eastern city of Kharkiv.

In November last year, he and his young cast travelled to the Russian-speaking city, which is just 40 kilometres (25 miles) from the border with Ukraine's giant neighbour.

At the time, things were quiet but when the shoot actually began in December, pro-EU unrest that had erupted in the capital Kiev -- and quickly morphed into a protest movement against President Viktor Yanukovych's regime -- had spread to other cities including Kharkiv.

With no proper permit to film and working in a country where homosexuality is still severely frowned upon, Taieb used a small camera to shoot scenes as unconspicuously as possible, while protests took place nearby.

"Even in gay clubs, where we filmed some scenes, employees who were themselves gay and worked there didn't want us to show their faces, saying it was a risk to their lives," says Kazakh-born Ekaterina Rusnak, who played in the film and also acted as a fixer.

- Family torn apart -

By the end of December, they had wrapped up the shoot without incident and travelled back to France, but it was the events that unfolded in quick-fire succession that deeply affected the crew.

Pro-Moscow Yanukovych was ousted, Russian troops annexed Ukraine's Black Sea peninsula of Crimea and pro-Russia militants in the east are now violently battling against the rule of a new government.

Andrey Koshman, a 25-year-old Ukrainian student who lives in France and plays the part of a friend who helps Anton in his investigation, said the situation had torn his family apart.

"I was born in Donetsk in the east of Ukraine, which is pro-Russia," he said.

"My aunt supports Euromaidan (as the anti-Yanukovych protests were known) and thinks that everyone must accept the new government. My father (in Donetsk) is counting on the intervention of the Russians and being attached to Russia... He even told me he was ready to go to war," he said.

"And now a third camp has formed at home because of my stepmother. She has been married to my father for 15 or so years now, and supports the independence of Donetsk and the creation of a republic that would be independent from Ukraine and Russia. The family is divided in three."

Shuteev, meanwhile, is half Tatar. Many members of this Turkic-speaking Muslim minority live in Crimea, and do not hold Russia dear after Stalin deported them to Siberia and central Asia during the Second World War when many died of disease or starvation.

Tensions have risen sky-high since Russia annexed the peninsula in March, and the United Nations has since denounced the harassment and persecution of Crimea's Tatars.

But Shuteev's mother, who lives in Russia's Republic of Tatarstan, is pro-Putin.

"She is against the Tatars of Crimea because they are pro-European," he said, shaking his head.





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