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Kyiv’s First Queer Film Festival Fights Two Battles

As Kyiv faced Russian air power, movie buffs also pushed for gay rights at home.

Words: Katie Toth
Pictures: Sunny Bunny Festival
Date:

The final credits are rolling on the most famous film in Ukrainian history when air raid sirens suddenly blare across Kyiv. As the audience members leave the comfort of their theater seats, some of them head toward a bomb shelter in another nearby cinema.

Anastasiia Puhach, a Ukrainian creative events producer now based in Berlin, is among them. She and the rest of the moviegoers just finished watching “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors” — a 1960s classic of magical realism. No one panicked or showed any fear, says Puhach. A lot of people in Kyiv have gotten used to this scene. But Puhach refuses to become numb to this reality. “It is not normal that every night people in Kyiv go to bed and don’t even know if they will wake up.”

As a counteroffensive continues in Ukraine’s east, Russia spent the first few days of summer escalating its airstrikes on civilian targets, all while fears of nuclear sabotage at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station dominate the media. It’s in this darkness that fans of queer film gathered for Ukraine’s first international LGBTQ film festival, Sunny Bunny, under the projector’s flickering light. 

“Queer Culture is Part of Ukrainian Culture”

The festival’s adorable but inscrutable name actually evokes that glow of the cinema. Festival Director Bohdan Zhuk explains that in Ukrainian, the translation of Sunny Bunny, сонячний зайчик, refers to the dancing reflections of a sunbeam off a mirrored surface; it’s light that is refocused and transformed. 

“For me, it’s the bright spot, the bright shiny part,” says Zhuk. “For a lot of people, queer cinema is the most interesting and inventive and free in the film world.” 

people, festival, Sunny Bunny
Attendees of the Sunny Bunny Festival in Kyiv, Ukraine in June 2023.

The films shown this year speak to that sense of play — movies like “Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day,” a film that references traditional Egyptian folk tales and pop music as the filmmaker encounters ghosts of his former lovers, and “Neptune Frost,” an Afrofuturist story about an anti-colonial hacker collective.

Sunny Bunny traces its origins to 2001 when Kyiv’s Molodist International Film Festival first created its own category recognizing queer cinema. It would take another 22 years before Sunny Bunny would break out on its own.

LGBTQ culture is often seen as a foreign import in Ukraine, but Zhuk says the country has its own gay artistic legacy. “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors” — the dramatic romance that just finished before the June 23, 2023 airstrike, and a highlight of the festival’s Ukrainian retrospective — was directed by Sergei Parajanov, an Armenian filmmaker whose bisexuality and refusal to bend to a USSR-approved creative style landed him in Soviet prison more than once. 

“His identity… made him find beauty in unexpected things,” says Zhuk. One of the most pioneering films of the Soviet era, “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors” has no gay character or storyline, but the artist’s gaze influenced queer filmmakers around the world. “The camera work definitely loves the protagonist so much… I can’t say it’s homoerotic, but it’s definitely a part of it.” 

It’s this kind of legacy that Zhuk wants to recast: “​​Queer culture is part of Ukrainian culture and it has been represented in cinema as well.”

The stakes are particularly high for gay soldiers. This year, Sunny Bunny wanted to draw as much attention to the issue as it could.

Championing queer cinema in Ukraine can be dangerous. In 2014, when Sunny Bunny was still just an event under the Moldodist festival umbrella, one of the hosting cinemas was lit on fire. This year just before the festival began, a fresh crop of threats emerged. 

“There were these far-right groups basically urging to ‘give this festival a visit’ with a picture of the cinema burning,” Zhuk explains. “The hint is very clear and unambiguous, so of course, we took it very seriously.” During the festival, police patrolled theaters daily to make sure festival-goers were safe from violence. 

This kind of aggression isn’t limited to the festival. Ksenia Termasina, community manager for Kyiv Pride, says gay and trans people in Ukraine are “exposed to a double disaster.” They face the same war as everyone else while dealing with misconceptions and discrimination at home. “The war created a lot of tension in society, accumulated a lot of anger, and this anger is often directed at marginalized groups.” 

In mid-June 2023, an LGBTQ community center in the northwestern city of Lutsk was broken into and trashed in what Human Rights Watch described as part of a “pattern of harassment.” And when Sunny Bunny showed a set of family-focused short films for kids 12 and up, anti-gay trolls online compiled fake images to imply the festival was corrupting vulnerable youth, Zhuk says. “They [made] it look like we are showing porn to children, which is of course not true.”  

But tolerance for the community seems to be on the rise. In 2022, polling by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology showed negative feelings toward the LGBTQ community had halved since 2016, dropping from 60% of Ukrainians to 30%.  

“One can only guess what was the reason for such a rapid progress,” noted a summary from the Nash Svit Center, the human rights group that commissioned both studies. “Perhaps the Russian invasion, carried out under the slogans of defending ‘traditional values’… Ukrainians have clearly seen what the Russian world brings to us and who are our true friends and allies.”

A Critical Moment for Civil Partnerships

Amidst these changing attitudes, Kyiv is also at a crossroads in terms of gay rights. 

Marriage in Ukraine is constitutionally defined as between a man and a woman — and the constitution, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has noted, can’t change under martial law. But after a draft bill was put forward this spring, legislators are closer than ever to creating a civil partnership law for same-sex couples. The bill has seen support in unexpected places: one conservative MP said that he would support the bill because it was “a smile toward Europe, and a middle finger toward Russia.” 

The stakes are particularly high for gay soldiers. Right now, their partners are not entitled to make medical decisions if their loved ones are injured, or even to be notified of their death. The bill would change that, entitling partners to financial support and to official recognition.

This year, Sunny Bunny wanted to draw as much attention to the issue as it could. The festival featured a pair of documentaries about LGBTQ soldiers, both by nonbinary filmmaker Angelika Ustymenko. The first recounts some of the first weeks of Russia’s full-scale invasion when queer people were suddenly faced with life-or-death choices. The second film asks people for their reflections on how a year of war has changed their lives. An activist for Kharkiv Pride finds herself stationed in a logistics battalion; a trans soldier recovers from her injuries abroad in Amsterdam. 

The festival saved seats to the screenings for Ukraine’s Ministry of Justice. The department didn’t send anyone to the screenings or to the film’s opening night, which organizers say is a statement all its own. But Zhuk still hopes stories like the ones Ustymenko documented will open minds about his community.   

“We all know now that we have one enemy — and it’s not queer people or any other groups of society,” he says. 

On opening night, Termasina spoke on a brightly-lit stage, telling the audience about how their first date with their partner was at the movies: “In a dark theater, we held hands for the first time.” They pointed to the number of brands supporting Pride Month, then called for more donations for queer and trans soldiers on the front. “The only thing standing in the way of Ukraine becoming a better place for queers,” Termasina said to the crowd, “is damn Russia.” 

Ultimately, only one movie in the whole festival was cut short by missiles: a portrayal of Berlin’s party scene called “Drifter.” Curfew had already begun by the time the air raid was over, so there was a repeat screening the next day, Zhuk said. Once again in a dark theater, lights bounced and traveled through the projector — taking the audience somewhere new as they sat in the dark.

Katie Toth

Producer

Katie Toth is a producer for Things That Go Boom.

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