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Firebird, deeply affecting & iconic LGBT love story, bursts thru at Outfest

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Tom Prior as Sergey with Oleg Zagorodnii as Roman (Photo Courtesy of Firebird Director Peeter Rebane)

LOS ANGELES – A common denominator for many people who are LGBTQ throughout the world, in differing cultures and under divergent political systems, has been the oppression of hiding our secret love.  To quote Beauty and the Beast, “it is a tale as old as time.” It is a tale we have seen on screen before.  It is a tale some of us have lived, and for others, it is a life they are currently living beneath.

One such true story is made its debut on the screens of Outfest LA this past weekend.  And while its theme may be familiar, the raw passion, the glorious romance and its layered nuances are highly unique.

The film is called FIREBIRD.

Directed and co-scripted by Peeter Rebane it is based on the memoir by Sergey Fetisov.  In my conversation on RATED LGBT RADIO with Peeter and his co-writer, and star of the film, Tom Prior, Peeter said the film has  been described as a “CALL ME BY YOUR NAME” set not against a sweet pastoral Tuscany backdrop, but against a repressive Soviet-occupied Estonia Cold War one.”

Tom Prior as Sergey (Photo Courtesy of Firebird Director Peeter Rebane)

In the film, Sergey (Tom Prior), is a young private about to exit his time in the Soviet Air Force. His closest friend is the secretary to the base commander Luisa (Diana Pozharskaya).  Sergey and Luisa’s quasi romantic friendship is redirected when an incredibly dynamic maverick fighter pilot arrives on the base, and both Sergey and Luisa are overwhelmed by his magnetism. That fighter pilot is Roman, played by Oleg Zagorodnii.  

Oleg is himself a revelation.  His performance is intense, sensitive and deep.  He literally beat out 2400 other actors for the role.  And as impeccable as his English is in the film, he actually only speaks Russian in real life.

The performances by all three of the lead actors are nuanced, beautiful and completely authentic.  They produce a magnificent chemistry that not only gives the audience full understanding of the love they exude for each other, but also a cathartic desire to be one of them.

The true lovers of the piece are Roman and Sergey however.  Through a brilliant weave of discussions about photography and theater, the passion between the two builds until they share an impromptu and spontaneous kiss.  As the unspoken feelings between them become evident, the most important relationship in the film emerges. 

Oleg Zagorodnii as Roman & Tom Prior as Sergey
(Photo Courtesy of Firebird Director Peeter Rebane)

The oppressions of the KGB and the society they live in creates a “virtual character” that stands up as a nemesis against the love the men have discovered and want to nurture.  While that oppression is brilliantly portrayed in a three dimensional way by Margus Prangel as the intrusive Major Zverev, the true villain is ‘Fear’ itself.  Tom described that element of the film, “Fear was its own character in the film. You see it in small moments : the characters walk past a corridor at one point and see   people secretly recording their neighbors. You just see the image of a recording equipment and people listening.   The Soviet Union wasn’t free, you’re kind of being policed and literally its in the walls, they have ears and you’ve got to be very mindful about how you speak. Its the kind of level of fear becomes not something you can necessarily see but more something you can feel.”

When the relationship is almost exposed, Roman finds himself driven to marry Luisa and denies Sergey. Over the next years, the relationships overlap, collide and ultimately lead to an ill fated end.

Diana Pozharskaya as Luisa (Photo Courtesy of Firebird Director Peeter Rebane)

The magic of Firebird is not in its passionate and sadly beautiful plotline however.  It is in the intense performance of its three principal actors.  Each character projects their story, their conflict and their love in subtle but profound ways – the looks in their eyes, the touch of their hands and the intensity of their kisses.

FIREBIRD has the makings of a screen classic.  Its stars have presence and their characters walk with you after the film is done.  They are easy comparable to star crossed lovers of Casablanca, Brokeback Mountain, or any of the Star is Born.

The fact that this is a true story, and that Sergey Fetisov lived it, was what impacted Peeter from the beginning.  As they were working on the script, Peeter and Tom actually got to spend time with Sergey to flesh out their screenplay ideas.  Peeter told me, “It was very humbling, he was such a loving person, considering what he has gone through in life, to remain so positive and so compassionate and really so full of life and love towards other people. His main message to us was: please make this film about love- not politics, even though it has a highly important social impact mission.”

(Photo Courtesy of Firebird Director Peeter Rebane)

Tom, who played Sergey in the film, was also deeply moved.  “I saw that his love for Roman opened the world for him.  He proceeded to live in hope, and stay true to himself, and that’s really what I took from meeting the real man and it was the honor to get to know him.”

In the film, “Firebird” is a glorious ballet that Roman takes Sergey to before the passions erupt between them.  It is a colorful, exciting fabulous display of a red enchanted bird with a magical feather.  The bird represents re-birth and defeats a horrible nightmarish demon.

Sadly, the real Sergey did not get to see his life brought to the screen by Peeter and Tom.  He died before they had even finished the final script. They felt compelled to travel to Russia to mourn him: they went to his wake, his funeral and fully absorbed his essence.

Tom Prior as Sergey with Oleg Zagorodnii as Roman
(Photo Courtesy of Firebird Director Peeter Rebane)

What has emerged is a film that transcends all of its elements.  It is a film with a gorgeous and talented cast.  It is a film with tension and intrigue.  It is a film of the deepest of love stories.  It is a film of poetic subtexts and literary allusions.  It is a film with an important glimpse into a unique window of history.

Yet it is more than all of that.  It is a film of re-birth, finding hope and truth as we emerge from life’s cruel ironies.

Sergey Fetisov did not live to see his love story delivered to the hearts of a soon to be adoring public.  But like the Firebird, Peeter Rebane and Tom Prior have brought his soul and his love back to life. It is flaming forth on the screens of OutFest this weekend, on its way to move the whole world.

Bathe in it.  Soak it up.  Sergey would have wanted it that way.

Sergei Fetisov 1952 -2017

Listen to the entire interview here:

Firebird Trailer:

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‘Cured’ beautifully chronicles fight for dignity

New doc revisits APA designation of homosexuality as a sickness

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Disguised as ‘Dr. H. Anonymous’ in an oversized tuxedo and distorted Nixon mask, Dr. John Fryer sent shock waves through the APA’s 1972 convention. (Photo by Kay Tobin; courtesy Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library)

At the 1970 American Psychiatric Association convention, in front of 10,000 professional members, LGBTQ activists had a single rejoinder to decades of APA designation of homosexuality as a sickness in need of treatment: “There is no ‘cure’ for that which is not a disease.” It marked the first direct clash with a psychiatric profession that had classified homosexuality as a mental disorder and advised everything from talk therapy to psychologically destructive shock therapy to “cure” homosexuality. 

After Stonewall, gay activists concluded that the classification of homosexuality as a mental illness by the APA would hold back the advancement of the gay rights movement. To secure equality, activists knew they had to debunk the idea that they are sick. 

The struggle to remove homosexuality from the APA’s definition of mental illness is beautifully chronicled in the forthcoming documentary “Cured” — beautifully because the filmmakers contrast erroneous characterizations of homosexuality by mid-century psychiatrists with mid-century photographs that bore witness to gay people’s actual nature. 

Getting the APA to change required more than storming conferences. Gay activists, for instance, pinpointed sympathetic young psychiatrists who could act to reform the APA from within and helped them win seats on the Board of Trustees. Meanwhile, the culture was changing. In the 1970s, gay visibility was growing, which boosted the campaign to end the sickness label. 

At its 1972 convention, the APA offered a platform to gay rights activists Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings. The duo invited Dr. John Fryer to testify about what it was like to be a gay psychiatrist. Fearing damage to his reputation (he had previously lost a position for being gay), Fryer donned a mask and adopted the title H. Anonymous. Despite his cloaked persona, his testimony was, in the words of one attendee, a “game-changer.” 

Fryer spoke as a gay man with “real flesh and blood stand[ing] up before this organization and ask[ing] to be listened to” and evoked the great emotional toll of being forced to live in the closet — “this is the greatest loss: our honest humanity.” The tide was turning but the intransigent faction needed a few more kicks. Representing a new generation of psychiatrists, Dr. Charles Silverstein would lay down the gauntlet: The APA could either continue to promote “undocumented theories that have unjustly harmed a great number of people” or accept the genuine science that being gay was no illness. At the next year’s convention, in a final clash between opposing sides, Gay Activist Alliance member Ronald Gold pointed out the absurdity that a medical practice predicated on making sick people well was making “gay people sick.” The APA ended its mental illness classification in 1974. 

“Cured” represents a growing awareness of the history of “curing” homosexuality. Netflix recently premiered “Pray Away” about the so-called “ex-gays” who promoted conversion therapy, the destructive practice by fundamentalist Christian quacks. The film “Boy Erased” (2018) took a similar sledgehammer to conversion therapy. 

Precisely because of the long-term ill-effects of stigmatizing gay consciousness, the LGBTQ community has in recent years targeted conversion therapy. Twenty states have banned conversion therapy for minors, and an additional five states have enacted partial bans. 

Although thoroughly discredited by medical professionals, including the APA, conversion therapy continues to harm thousands of youths each year. While “Cured” is instructive for LGBTQ activists combatting conversion therapy nationwide, it has an even more important lesson. 

“There isn’t anything wrong with them, so there can’t be anything wrong with me,” is how one gay man remembers feeling upon entering a gay bar, witnessing convivial gay men and realizing it was time to ditch his homophobic shrink and embrace himself. 

It struck a deep chord with me because I had a similar epiphany as a young man. Feeling my way around my sexuality as a grad student in New York, it all finally came together one night at a Greenwich bar as I sat across from two gay men and chatted about traveling and career ambitions. I am doing nothing wrong, I thought. It made no sense to be afraid of living my life as a gay man.

Our determination to live openly remains a potent inspiration for those still struggling with acceptance, and the strongest rebuke of those who would seek to erase us. 

“Cured” premieres on PBS on Oct. 11. 

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A conversation with Bruce LaBruce

Filmmaker still pushing boundaries after 30 years

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Bruce LaBruce (Photo by George Nebieridze)

Bruce LaBruce, one of the few filmmakers that has been able to build a career moving back and forth between directing porn and independent cinema, is still interested in shocking his audiences.

Once known for incorporating explicit scenes of gay and fetish sex into his movies, he’s produced a body of work over the past three decades that deliberately pushes the boundaries of our taboos and pulls the rug out from under our most solid assumptions about sex and sexuality. His movies subvert familiar Hollywood tropes in narratives that blend a campy, melodramatic style with depictions of hardcore, frequently unconventional sex, and even if he’s taken a slightly tamer approach in some of his more recent work – including his latest, “Saint-Narcisse,” which was released earlier this month and features a complicated story about twin brothers separated at birth who fall in love with each other when they reunite as adults – it doesn’t mean his films are any less transgressive. 

When the notorious Canadian iconoclast sat down to speak with the Blade last week, we talked with him about the challenge of staying on that edge.

BLADE: In your earlier films, audiences were shocked by the sexual depictions you included. Does it surprise you that nowadays the same things can be seen on Netflix or HBO? 

BRUCE LABRUCE: It’s true that when you see erect penises on “Euphoria,” or what have you, it’s taking TV to a level that nobody perhaps could have anticipated – or maybe it was inevitable, really. But even though there’s a certain amount of extreme and explicit content allowed, when you shift to the bigger context it’s still not seen as OK. Society has this weird schizophrenia where that kind of explicitness, even the idea of porn, is accepted, to a degree – but in cinema, at least in mainstream theatrical films, there’s almost a de-sexualization. Certainly, all those superheroes are shockingly asexual. I think it’s partly because the audience for a lot of that stuff is kids – and the culture in general is a bit infantile in this era. 

BLADE: How has that changed your approach to filmmaking?

LABRUCE: For one thing, I’m deliberately making more mainstream films, like “Saint-Narcisse,” that are kind of like wolves in sheep’s clothing. On the surface they reference popular genres, like mystery and romantic comedy, and they pay homage to ‘70s cinema – and there’s a certain, maybe not “light-heartedness” but a camp element to the style as well.

And the explicitness is not as important as the implications of what the film is about. Like in “Saint-Narcisse,” the plot about this attraction between twin brothers opens up into Freud’s idea of “family romance,” and how these sexual tensions that he talks about within the nuclear family lead people to so much guilt and self-loathing, because they think there’s something morally wrong about them for having these sexual impulses, which are really just natural. Obviously, there are taboos in place, as there should be, but whether there needs to be so much guilt and self-torture about having those kinds of impulses is another question.

BLADE: Your movies have always centered on these taboo expressions of sexuality.

LABRUCE: The idea of trying to humanize taboo sexuality and fetishes runs through all my work. You’re not sick or morally corrupt because you have a fetish, you’re just a living, breathing human that happens to have this extreme impulse. It’s actually quite often a real worship, a devout kind of respect and appreciation, even a spiritual appreciation of the object of desire.

And there are so many ideological gay-themed films that insist on presenting only “positive” representations of homosexuality. I’ve always been against that, against any kind of prior censorship or pressure to conform to ideals of representation – I mean, who determines what is a “good” gay? 

I prefer making something that really isn’t even classified as a “gay” film, more a film that talks about the ambivalence of sex and the ambiguities of sexual representation. I’ve always depicted characters that don’t have a fixed sexual identity, they’re somewhat fluid, and it’s more about human sexuality in general, rather than being a “gay” film – or a film that presents gay characters that are reassuring and fixed in their gay identity. You know, assimilated, or at least well-behaved and domesticated.

BLADE: Your films certainly challenge those kinds of politically correct notions of queer behavior.

LABRUCE: There is a fear anymore of representing things because of political correctness, of being called out or “cancelled” or whatever, which I really do think is the enemy of art and cinema. The artist should be able to express themselves without second-guessing everything they do, and without censoring themselves. It’s always been that if you disagree with someone or if you think their film is offensive, then you have many ways of expressing that to them – you can walk out of their film, you can confront them at a Q&A, you can have a dialogue on the internet – but more and more it’s become a black-and-white conversation where you’re either on the right side or the wrong side. That’s extremely challenging for a filmmaker nowadays.

BLADE: Your work has always stirred up controversy, though. And yet, you’ve managed to weather all that and become a respected cinema artist. How did you pull that off?

LABRUCE: There’s a kind of irony in my movies – I see it more as ambiguity, really, or a camp sensibility that I have – that allows for a lot of interpretation, and you don’t always know where a film stands or what the intention is behind it. It’s ambiguous – even to me, you know? I think that’s a much more productive way of approaching cinema, because then it’s a dialogue with the audience – you’re not telling them “this is the way it needs to be” because of social pressures. It’s something that is open to interpretation.

BLADE: There’s also a kind of absurdity in your films, where things sometimes go to extreme levels that make us see how ridiculous a lot of these moral strictures can be when we look at them from a different perspective. Is that something you try to do?

LABRUCE: It’s setting up a kind of politically correct scenario and then taking the piss out of it. It’s the difference between fantasy and reality. Our sexual imagination can be very dark and complicated and disturbing sometimes, and instead of making people feel guilt-ridden or tortured by the fact that they have these thoughts, I want my films to be a kind of collective unconsciousness, where people can work these things out rather than acting on them in real life. 

That’s the function of porn, after all.

Bruce LaBruce’s latest film, ‘Saint Narcisse’ features twin brothers separated at birth who fall in love with each other when they reunite as adults. (Photo courtesy of Film Movement)
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Once upon a time in Los Angeles- film documentary looks at queer history

Gregorio Davila’s ’L.A. A Queer History’ through interviews, archival footage, and photographs weaves a tapestry of LGBTQ life in Los Angeles

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PALM SPRINGS – A new documentary film debuted at the Palm Springs LGBTQ Film Festival this weekend that chronicles the often overlooked important role that Los Angeles played in the early days of the LGBTQ movement for equality.

Director Gregorio Davila’s ’L.A. A Queer History’ through interviews, archival footage, and photographs weaves a tapestry of LGBTQ life in Los Angeles long before the fateful hot June evening in New York City’s West Greenwich Village at the Stonewall Inn in 1969.

Davila notes that his film is much more than just another ‘gay’ story telling Palm Springs Life magazine;

“We’ve contributed to the fabric of America and everything in it, just as much as anyone else has,” Davila says. “This is an American story just as much as any other American story as well. Hopefully people will realize and see that; maybe they will be more open-minded.”

Davila who grew up in Hemet, in the San Jacinto Valley in Riverside County told the Palm Springs Life he believes the film shines the spotlight on the West coast gay movement when more historical references tend to point to the Stonewall Inn in New York City.

Viewers will have a one-time opportunity to see Davila’s director’s cut at 3 p.m. Sept. 18 during the festival’s first weekend of in-person films being shown at the Palm Springs Cultural Center. A second showing is slated for 7 p.m. Sept. 26. Davila will participate in a Q&A session after the Sept. 18 screening.

L.A. A Queer History (2021) Trailer from L.A. A Queer History on Vimeo.

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