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‘Firebird’ is an instantly classic LGBTQ love story

A moving film set in repressive Soviet-occupied Estonia

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Tom Prior as Sergey with Oleg Zagorodnii as Roman in ‘Firebird.’ (Photo courtesy of director Peeter Rebane)

A common denominator for many LGBTQ people 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 made its debut on the screens of Outfest LA last weekend. And while its theme may be familiar, the raw passion, the glorious romance and its layered nuances are 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, Rebane 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.”

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.  

Zagorodnii is a revelation. His performance is intense, sensitive and deep. He literally beat out 2,400 other actors for the role. And as impeccable as his English is in the film, he 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. Through a brilliant weaving 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. 

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. Prior 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. The 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.

The magic of “Firebird” is not in its passionate and sadly beautiful plot, 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 easily comparable to star-crossed lovers of “Casablanca,” “Brokeback Mountain,” “A Star is Born.”

The fact that this is a true story, and that Sergey Fetisov lived it, was what impacted Rebane from the beginning. As they were working on the script, Rebane and Prior actually got to spend time with Sergey to flesh out their screenplay ideas. Rebane said, “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.”

Prior, 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, and fabulous display of a red enchanted bird with a magical feather. The bird represents rebirth and defeats a horrible nightmarish demon.

Sadly, the real Sergey did not get to see his life brought to the screen by Rebane and Prior. 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.

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 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 rebirth, 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 LGBTQ film festivals and on its way to move the whole world.

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

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‘I Am Samuel’: A family portrait too real for Kenya?

Country banned LGBTQ-themed documentary

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(Image courtesy of 'We Are Not The Machine')

If there has been one thing missing in LGBTQ storytelling for a while it has been the framing of LGBTQ people as cogs in greater family mechanisms. The 2020 Kenyan film “I Am Samuel” not only fills this gap but also disrupts how stories of African people of marginalized sexual orientations have been told to the world. When Peter Murimi started chronicling this story over five years ago, he might have imagined that his locale would be primed to receive it as Kenya has a thriving human rights activist scene. This was not the case, and his intimate family portrait was banned from being screened in its proverbial motherland.

When you hear that a film has been banned you immediately think that it contains gratuitous displays of something or the other that go against the fabric of the country or humanity in general. In dictatorial states you might think the film to be excessively progressive. With the film in question, neither one of these things is the case. If anything, Murimi’s telling of Samuel’s story is in service of nationwide unification. While the principal characters are Sammy and Alex, whom he calls “the love of my life” in the first minute of dialogue in the film, the story really is about the strength and value of family ties with Sammy’s aging parents.

The Kenya Film Classification Board’s penchant for banning films it expects to sway people towards cultural enlightenment, what it would frame as corruption of morals, is nothing new at this point with regards to LGBTQ-centric films. This very board banned Wanuri Kahiu’s internationally acclaimed “Rafiki”, which was released in Cannes in 2018, due to its “homosexual themes.” The case built around “I Am Samuel”, however, is a different one since it shows Sammy’s gayness not as rebellion but as affirming his truth—something that his parents grow to not fault him for. In their justification of why Murimi’s film violates the Films and Stage Plays Act, the acting CEO Christopher Wambua pointedly stated that “additionally, the film tries to influence the viewer into believing that the older generation that was once against LGBTQ+ is slowly buying into the practice and accepting same-sex marriage as a normal the way of life.”

What is sad, yet not unsurprising, about Wambua’s statement is that it reminds us that homophobia is as inherited as colorism in Africa and across former colonies. Given the chance to see what elders growing into their acceptance of what they had been conditioned to believe is foreign, even if they knew better than to buy into that lie, it would appear that Kenya’s moralistic cultural gatekeepers refuse to engage in the decolonial project one of their own, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, continues to challenge the world toward. What Murimi offers in this family portrait is for Kenyans, Africans and all those conditioned to believe that hating one of their own is intrinsic to self-preservation, to view the protagonist’s life from the perspective of the aunt/uncle/cousin/sister/mother/father who is in fact their confidante. Murimi allows viewers to see a family thrown into turmoil by the revelation of someone’s truth, and to watch as each party grows to learn how to coexist with the other in an effort to rebuild the tangible love they once had, which is now just hidden behind shame and misunderstanding.

“I Am Samuel” isn’t without expressions romance, sexuality and attraction. When Sammy’s father professes that he was happy that he’d found his “sweetie” and he wants the same thing for his son, you feel both bashful and pitiful. Sammy’s parents, being aging subsistence farmers, are the Africans of anthropologic development reports the West feeds its colonialist appetite with, but Murimi gives them a chance at being multidimensional—being people who not only suffer their environment, but also have histories that don’t involve the hardships of their present. Similarly, this film does away with many of the hallmarks of “third world LGBTQ documentaries” in that it really is just about Sammy’s life and doesn’t try to paint a broad-stroke picture of how gay men live in Nairobi or rural Kenya.

The commitment that Sammy and Alex show to each other is also given its space without dramatization. Their personal hardships are mundane. What strikes the viewer, however, is that this documentary is not sanitized from the horrors that state-endorsed homophobia can bring to people’s lives. A case of mistaken identity resulting in unwarranted scars for one of their friends is a reminder that generalist understandings and portrayals of LGBTQ people are dangerous and can be life threatening.

“I Am Samuel” is a timely offering to the world of LGBTQ storytelling in that it’s a story of perseverance, acceptance, teaching, mundanity, destiny, faith and simple humanity. The film is by no means a finished story, Murimi doesn’t venture to envelope it in fancy facts or Aristotelian catharsis—we are left with where the family that we spend the good part of an hour getting to understand are at the point the screen fades to black. We are left hoping that the family unit is able to re-imagine its future. Where questions of offspring might otherwise be framed through surrogacy or adoption, we understand that these are socio-economic privileges that don’t immediately apply in this particular family. We are left hoping that the health of the elders improves and they get to celebrate many more harvests and muse over wedding photos and cake. “I Am Samuel” is the kind of African story that shelves being brave in favor of being seen as human by those closest to you and many families need it. Whether they are in Kenya, Botswana, Russia or the U.S., they need it.

“I Am Samuel” premiered across Africa on Oct. 14 on Afridocs’ website, and the producers invite you to stream it there for free!

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LGBTQ youth inspired to action by “Cured” documentary and country’s homophobic past

“Cured” documentary a revelation for LGBTQ youth

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A new documentary’s archival footage of the country’s homophobic past opened the eyes of four young members of the LGBTQ+ community who were only dimly aware of the events the film describes.

“Cured,” which aired on PBS’ Independent Lens on October 11, was a revelation to the youth– who work with the D.C.-based Urban Health Media Project on multimedia health journalism. 

Some of the scenes that made an impression:

  • At a 1966 South Florida high school assembly on the evils of homosexuality, an official warns students that “if we catch you … the rest of your life will be a living hell.’’  
  • A gay psychiatrist, appearing on a 1972 American Psychiatric Association panel, is identified only as “Dr. Henry Anonymous.” He’s so afraid of reprisals that he must protect his identity by wearing a Halloween face mask and a fright wig and using a distortion mic.  
  • A series of sober, eminent psychiatrists – leaders of the profession – insist in forum after forum that homosexuality is a sickness.

For two decades, that assumption was reflected in the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM),” the American psychiatric profession’s official compendium of mental and brain diseases and disorders.

“Cured” tells the story of how a relatively small number of courageous gay activists got the “gays are sick” notion struck from the manual –a pivotal moment in the gay liberation movement.

“Being gay and trans myself,’’ said Hermes Falcon, “this film meant a lot to me, because it exposed me to people that I didn’t even know were part of the movement.’’

Those people included Barbara Gittings and Frank Kameny, who in the mid-1960s – when most Americans still said they feared or hated homosexuals — organized some of the first public protests against employment discrimination against gays. One depicted in “Cured”took place outside the White House.

Another early activist was Dr. John Fryer, the psychiatrist who, it later turned out, was “Dr. Anonymous.’’

 Falcon, a college freshman, also noted the tension at the heart of the story told by “Cured”: “How working together makes a big difference, but also how one person can make a big change.’’

Falcon cited the example of Fryer, who testified at the APA convention in Dallas in 1972 that anti-gay bias was hurting psychiatrists, too. At that point, the DSM’s entry 302.0, which termed homosexuality “a mental disorder,” was two decades old. Within two years of Fryer’s testimony, it had been abolished.

Another young member of the LGBTQ+ community, Adrian Gibbons, an assistant video editor at UHMP and recent college graduate, also was struck by the example of Fryer, “a real person who was risking his job to stand up for himself and the LGBTQ community.’’ His example, Gibbons said, “inspires me to fight for myself and my community, no matter the risks.’’

Gibbons noted that some trailblazers faced a harsh backlash from colleagues or family members. But he said their sacrifice was worth it, considering that “their efforts brought justice to LGBTQ people who had been injured or abused in mental institutions, and saved countless people from being put through that same torture in the future.’’

Torture is probably not too strong a word; “Cured” shows how electroshock and even lobotomy were used as elements of “conversion therapy’’ to make gay people straight.   

The early activists’ sheer courage also inspired Dillon Livingston, a high school student. The film shows, he said, that “it is imperative to remain true to yourself, even if everyone around you does not like the things that make you who you are.’’ 

Even though they faced intense discrimination and disdain, he added, the gay rights pioneers “were proud about their sexuality.’’

The four young LGBTQ+ viewers agreed that “Cured”made them more appreciative of the efforts of those who went before them, and more eager to emulate their example in the future.

As Livingston put it, “I must speak more about the queer community to inform heterosexuals about the problem we face.’’ 

Jojo Brew, an aspiring filmmaker, agreed: “All those people in the sixties and seventies fought for our rights, so it’s only fair that we continue to fight for the next generation’s rights.’’ 

“Cured” airs locally at 9 p.m. Oct. 21 on WHUT. After its broadcast premiere Oct. 11, the film will be available to stream for free on the PBS app and website for 30 days. The documentary will be rebroadcast a few more times over the next three years and eventually released on streaming platforms.

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Amazon Prime doc tells story of Black, queer civil rights pioneer

RBG quoted Anna Pauline (Pauli) Murray before Supreme Court

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AFI Docs, gay news, Washington Blade
Anna Pauline (Pauli) Murray (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

No one could have imagined the life of Anna Pauline (Pauli) Murray, the Black, queer, gender nonconforming civil rights pioneer who lived from 1910 to 1985.

Few people have done as much to make the world more just than Murray. Last year, Murray’s scholarship was used to help the ACLU successfully argue before the Supreme Court that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects LGBTQ+ people from being fired in the workplace because of their sexual orientation and gender identity. Yet, many people don’t know who Murray was.

“My Name is Pauli Murray,” a new documentary playing in select theaters and streaming on Amazon Prime, tells the story of Murray’s fascinating life. The engrossing film is co-directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, who directed “RBG,” the popular documentary on Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

“RBG” is a good documentary. Yet, the 131-minutes-long “My Name is Pauli Murray” is even better.

Conveying the complexity of Murray’s life in a doc of that short length would fell many mortals. But West and Cohen are up to the task.

Using recordings of Murray’s voice; Murray’s letters, footage of everything from Murray with one of her dogs to Harlem in the 1930s along with interviews with Murray’s family and biographers, the film draws you into Murray’s world.

To say Murray was a Renaissance woman isn’t trite. Murray was a lawyer, poet, writer, activist and educator. That’s just the tip of the iceberg!

For decades, Murray and Eleanor Roosevelt were friends. Murray was a co-founder of the National Organization for Women. Gay writers James Baldwin and Langston Hughes were her writing buddies. Murray and Baldwin were the first Black writers to be invited to the distinguished MacDowell writing colony.

In her 60s, Murray left her tenured position teaching at Brandeis University to go to seminary. She became the first Black woman to be ordained a priest by the Episcopal Church.

It doesn’t stop there! A paper Murray wrote as a Howard Law School student was a key element of Thurgood Marshall’s strategy in overthrowing racial segregation in Brown v. Board of Education. Ruth Bader Ginsburg quoted Murray when she argued against sex discrimination before the Supreme Court.

While she was alive, Murray was closeted about much of her personal life. Murray had a decades-long relationship with Irene Barlow. But, because of the times in which she lived, Murray couldn’t be open about their relationship.

Murray felt that she was misgendered—like a man in a woman’s body. This, too, Murray kept secret.

In “My Name is Pauli Murray,” Murray’s family and biographers refer to Murray with the pronouns “she and her.” A non-binary activist refers to Murray as “they.”

Murray is having a much-deserved moment. In 2016, Yale University named one of its residential colleges after Murray. It was the first time a Yale college was named after a person of color or an (openly) LGBTQ+ person. In 1965, Murray was the first African American to graduate from Yale with a doctorate in judicial science.

In 2017, the National Park Service, part of the Department of the Interior, Murray’s family home in Durham, N.C., as a National Historic Landmark.

Watching, “My Name is Pauli Murray,” you’re bowled over by Murray’s resilience and achievements. Fifteen years before Rosa Parks, she protested racial segregation on buses.

“I’ve lived to see my lost causes found,” Murray says.

It’s hard to humanize an icon. But, the filmmakers don’t place Murray on Mount Olympus.

Even as a child, we learn, Murray wanted to wear pants. That was fine during the week, her Aunt Pauline said, but Murray would have to wear a dress to church on Sunday. Though, few understood Murray’s feelings, Aunt Pauline called Murray “my boy girl.”

Murray and Barlow never lived together. Yet, you get a sense of their intimacy from the letters they exchanged. They called each other “Linus” and “Charlie Brown” (characters in the Peanuts comic strip) and wrote of longing to “share” listening to Brahms’ Fourth Symphony and the New York Times crossroad puzzle.

“My Name is Pauli Murray” will leave you talking about Murray and how to honor her legacy. That would have made Murray happy.

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