rhys chapman on taking his gay football film to moscow
2018's Football World Cup will be held in Russia — where it’s illegal to promote or engage in "propaganda" relating to LGBT relationships. So what happened when director Rhys Chapman took WONDERKID — his film about the inner turmoil of a gay footballer...
"I was introduced to the Russian LGBT Sport Federation president Alexander Agapov by Lou Englefield from Football v Homophobia and told about his plans for a WONDERKID screening in Moscow. While grateful for the opportunity, I was apprehensive about the prospect of going. With the anti-LGBT propaganda laws in Russia, I knew that any screening would be risky and I could be in serious danger.
I had spoken to senior members of the media about the trip, who had warned me about the threat. I was told it was likely that I would have my phone bugged and be followed, however I'm not one to shy away from a challenge and I didn't think I would be much of an LGBT rights activist if I didn't take up an opportunity to visit. I agreed to go and appear at the screening in person.
The Russian Visa application process is complicated — you have to fill out a form online, then print it off, and take it to the application center in London in person. There were long lines of people waiting to use the computers to start all over again after having their applications refused for even the most minute of details. Initially, I was supposed to be a private guest of an embassy employee who had sent me an official letter of invitation. The staff at the center phoned the embassy to check this, only to then tell me that the letter was incorrect and I would not be able to get the embassy visa after all. Over six hours in the center later, and following attempts to befriend those behind the counter, I ended up managing to get a tourist visa approved instead.
Once I arrived in Moscow, I was kept in passport control for over an hour — a nerve-racking experience. Being who I am and doing what I do, coupled with my true reasons for being there, naturally I was worried. Finally, they came to check my credentials, taking my passport for about 10 minutes without saying a word to me. It was a huge relief when they returned it and allowed me into Russia. Once through, Alexander was there to collect me. He told me there had, in fact, been nothing wrong with the embassy employee's letter of invitation, rather the employee had been told that they were not willing to guarantee my safety. Alexander suggested that he stay in my hotel to ensure I was safe. Hearing all this just as I got there made me feel very uneasy. I had been warned by many people not to go and at this point I felt like I'd made a huge mistake.
Walking the streets, there is no suggestion of an LGBT community even existing in Moscow. I learned how LGBT organizations have to remain hidden underground and how there are no anti-discrimination laws to protect the LGBT community in Russia — it's very difficult to arrange and do anything in public. I'm told any peaceful protests or demonstrations tend to get shut down by the police before they can even get started. Add to that the risk of having the event sabotaged by thugs and it's no surprise that events like ours almost always take place in absolute secrecy.
The screening was very different to our previous WONDERKID events. The film was shown in a foreign government building, so, from a legal point of view, it took place outside of Russia. I waited while the organizers set up and the audience members and guests began to appear — mostly all at the same time. There was a quiet and tense atmosphere; it all felt very secretive. While the screening was promoted on Facebook, I was told that, for LGBT events, the address is never advertised. Those interested have to register their details in order to attend and the address is always sent out privately closer to the date.
Walking the streets, there is no suggestion of an LGBT community even existing in Moscow.
Once the film started, everyone seemed to relax. Usually, at screenings with a large number of LGBT people in the audience, I feel a lot of gratitude but the response of the Russian audience was like nothing I've ever experienced. I stayed for several hours after the event answering more questions, hearing about LGBT issues in Russia, being asked for selfies and even signing autographs. It was a fantastic experience.
Going to Russia is definitely the proudest thing I've ever done — and I wish I could have stayed for longer — but listening to the audience members' experiences was a horrid reminder of the work that needs to be continued to help LGBT people globally. Worryingly, Russia is nowhere near the worst place to be gay — there are still 72 countries where same-sex relationships are illegal and Qatar — host of the 2022 World Cup — is 1 of 10 countries where being gay is illegal and punishable by death.
I would hope that once everyone's attention turns to the 2018 World Cup, and subsequently the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, steps will be taken to protect LGBT people and fans on the whole. We all have a huge responsibility to put FIFA, Russia, and Qatar under pressure in the run up to the next two tournaments and I would encourage anyone reading this to look into what's happening in these countries and to do whatever you can to help. No one should have to hide or live in fear of persecution or death because of who they are. What's more, if you want to carry the torch for the beautiful game, you have to include and welcome everyone.
There are still 72 countries where same-sex relationships are illegal and Qatar -- host of the 2022 World Cup -- is 1 of 10 countries where being gay is illegal and punishable by death.
Text Rhys Chapman