With more and more LGBTQ+ representation in television and film, it would be easy to claim that we live in a golden age of non-heteronormative stories. However, in places like Russia, to identify as LGBTQ+ is still heavily oppressed by law and society, and representation is hard to find in movie theatres and on TV screens. We interviewed screenwriter Elizaveta Simbirskaya and director Andrey Fenochka about their new web series, titled Here I Come, and how it examines the hidden lives of the LGBTQ+ scene in Moscow.
First of all, how would you describe your web series?
Liza: It’s the first-ever queer Russian web series. It’s the story of a straight guy who figures out he has a parallel life where he is gay. He has to understand his new personality and connect two different lives in one.
The story is rather unusual for the Russian audience. How did the idea come about?
Liza: We were at the first web festival in Russia with our first web series, This is Me. We met some guy who said that he had liked our show very much, and he wanted to invite us to a competition between crews from different web series with their new pilots on vk.com – the Russian equivalent of Facebook. He said that he had money for us. We said ‘yes’, and then he disappeared. A few months later, he called and asked, ‘Are you ready?’ He needed a synopsis to give us money and he suggested to do something like This is Me – about young people, and parties, and so on. We weren’t ready at all, but it was a great opportunity, so we said ‘yes’ once more.
And from here…
We talked a bit about it and Andrey said, ‘Let’s do something with a very simple premise but really crazy’. And I wrote three small episodes. I don’t even know why I decided to write about a gay guy, it was just an impulse. If I can write anything, any story, why not a web series about gay life? Or maybe the reason was that I couldn’t talk about young people without talking about sex, and I couldn't talk about sex without talking about diversity because I live in the modern world. I watch the same series and movies like other people around the world and I have the same questions and doubts about love, friendship and gender just like any other person.
But when the pilot was completed, we showed it to our sponsor and he said that it would be very difficult to push it in the competition and that we could do with this pilot whatever we wanted. And then he disappeared again. So now it’s our new web series and we are looking for money to shoot the rest of this show to tell our viewers who the fuck is Lesha and how to live in Russia if you are gay.
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The LGBTQ+ struggle in Russia is constantly appearing in foreign media with stories of repressive laws and severe punishments for flying the queer flag. What is your take on the current state of LGBTQ+ identity and how much does foreign media get right and wrong?
Liza: LGBT+ people are still outlawed in Russia. You can’t show LGBT+ movies in the movie theatres – only in a movie festival with limited screening. You can’t show queer love on TV. But last summer, at the Venice Film Festival, Russian directors Alexey Chupov and Natalia Merkulova presented their movie The Man Who Surprised Everyone. It’s a story about a man who tries to cheat death by pretending to be a woman. This movie was in theatres all over the country. While it’s not directly about LGBT+ life, it’s a good start in the right direction. 
It must be hard to find people daring to be depicted as LGBTQ+ on screen. How did you cast the series?
Andrey: It was challenging to find an actor for the leading role because, even among actors in Russia, there is a very complicated relationship with sexuality. People aren’t very free internally. Recently, in an interview, Russian filmmakers Merkulova and Chupov (authors of The Man Who Surprised Everyone) complained that it was difficult to find actors who were ready to just undress in front of the camera. And we needed a man to be able to kiss another man! Three eligible applicants refused, but Sergey Zurabyan asked permission from his mother and agreed.
The pilot features an amnesiac pizza boy who delivers an order to a queer party once a month, gets drunk, kisses everyone and then forgets about it the next day. Why did you choose to focus on a hetero protagonist exploring the LGBTQ+ world?
Liza: While it’s not an exceptional situation when seemingly hetero men suddenly discover that they are gay or bi, when you are in a homophobic country, it’s more difficult to accept. You’re scared of being misunderstood, of being yourself. But if you want to go forward, to handle it, you should find a way out of the closet. And that’s the main thing: to be honest to yourself.
Andrey: Because to a certain extent, Liza and I are in such a situation ourselves. We are heterosexuals exploring the LGBTQ+ world and making a web series about it. Nowadays, in the film industry, there are a lot of controversies surrounding authenticity – only transgender actors should play transgender people, gays should play gay, and so on. We discussed it with our group as well. To me, this tendency seems to be focusing energy on the wrong place and is potentially dangerous for the industry.
“I couldn’t talk about young people without talking about sex, and I couldn't talk about sex without talking about diversity because I live in the modern world” Liza
Why do you say that?
Andrey: It limits and clamps onto unnecessary and strange frameworks of prejudice. In the end, the best on-screen Bob Dylan came out of Cate Blanchett. However, at the insistence of Liza, we tried to cast people for the party scene who identify as LGBTQ+.
Liza, what kind of research and inspiration went into writing the story?
Liza: I have gay and lesbian friends and I know something about their life: they don’t like to kiss in the metro because everyone stares at them, but they do it in clubs (not only gay clubs but in techno clubs as well, for example). They can’t marry, and that’s why they can’t visit partners in the hospital without the partner’s relatives. It can be more difficult to rent a flat if you are openly gay, even in Moscow. I don’t know how it works in other Russian cities, but I don’t think that life there is much better.
At the same time, I know a lot of people who don’t accept the concept of diversity. A lot of people in Russia (like the rest of the world, I guess) think that it’s ok to be gay in your own flat or bed, but they can’t understand gay pride and don’t want to watch queer movies. They joke by saying, “Are you gay or what’s wrong with you?” So my research comes from my life and experience.
Regarding inspiration, there are several referents: the series Now Apocalypse by Gregg Araki, the doc movie about Alexey Navalny (a politician from the opposition here in Russia) and a campaign chief who is a queer girl, or the Norwegian series Skam, which I recently watched. It’s a great inspiration for my future work with the Here I Come scripts. It's an amazing project and it showed me how completely different the LGBTQ+ question can be shown.
Andrey, the fly-on-the-wall, conversational style reminded me a lot of Cassavetes and a little Altman, how did you come about developing the visual style of Here I Come
Andrey: The fundamental difference between Here I Come and the other things I’ve been shooting for about the last four years is that I’ve been shooting using almost entirely steady shots from the tripod with long focal length zoom lenses - and now we again took the camera in our hands. The fact is that for five years I studied as a documentary film director. With the operator of this series, we worked for the first time in 2014 on my diploma: a visually strongly inspired by Terrence Malik documentary film, which takes place in a distant Russian village and in Turkish Istanbul. We shot it on super-wide lenses at a minimum distance from the characters, entirely hand-held.
It was a challenge to make the people behave natural in such circumstances. With actors it’s much easier, of course. My main instigator and partial teacher (although we never talked one on one, I learned a lot from his films and his crew) - Aleksei Yuryevich German. This manner of observation, complex intraframe montage and attempts to make long scenes, filled with, as it was, 'random' people and replicas - all of this was inspired by his movies. I would like to further develop in this direction.
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How was the production?
Liza: Two weeks of pre-production, a one-day shooting in one location, and two weeks of post-production; that’s all. But we paid people for the first time (we couldn’t pay during the This is Me web series) and it was an amazing feeling to thank the crew not only with sweet words but with money.
Andrey: The opportunity to thank the actors and the crew financially was long-awaited and very pleasant, but this is still not the money you can earn on commercial production. You always try to add an extra incentive for them. For example, my permanent collaborator, director of photography Sergey Fedorov, requested that, in addition to his fee, about seven thousand rubles should be invested in the diode light, which was used specifically for the party scene. The team of Fancy Production during the creation of This is Me were amazing, and even six months later, actors periodically write to me saying that they want to shoot again – and I really want to as well!
When a lot of LGBTQ+ stories from Russia use drama, you have chosen a more comedic route. What led you to this choice?
Andrey: Our genre, or rather the manner of existence of actors in the frame, is closer to mumblecore than to comedy in my opinion. In general, you always want to achieve the sincerity of a simple life, not exaggerating colours. To make such a conversation with the audience with naturalistic language, without theatrical wringing of hands. It was definitely unusual: it was easy for the actors from Gitis, whom I used to work with, but Sergei from St. Petersburg was very stressed in the beginning.
As you were just telling us moments ago, the guy who first wanted to endorse the show got second thoughts after seeing that the web series would revolve around the LGBTQ+ community. Have there been more issues with finding support in distribution because of the subject matter?
Liza: People advise us to connect with foreign LGBTQ+ and Human Rights funds but we have to be an organization to be eligible for a grant. So we’re trying to find Russian organizations or funds that will work with us to submit to any foreign grant. We are still looking for opportunities, but if it doesn’t work, we always have crowdfunding! The cool web series titled Her Story about a transgender girl was produced this way.
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Do you think that there is more queer representation in contemporary Russian TV and cinema or is it largely underground or online?
Liza: I know two or three directors who have the desire to create LGBT+ movies (or just movies or series with LGBT+ characters) in Russia. Kseniya Ratushnaya with her Outlaw movie, Alexey Chupov and Natalia Merkulova (I mentioned them before) with the series Call Center, and maybe someone else, but I can’t remember now. I’m sorry. But if you make a movie or series with a queer character in Russia, it's a big thing!
What does the future hold for Here I Come?
Liza: We will make it no matter how the financing goes. I know it and I want it more than anything.
And for both of you?
Liza: I would like to work on an international project, try to work with people from different countries, maybe not as a screenwriter but more as a producer. I also want to write a feature film script and maybe shoot it with Andrey if he likes it.
Andrey: Now, I am working on a vast educational documentary video project. By the end of November, I must hand over eighty films that are seven minutes each. It is hard to believe in success, but we are trying. I want to gain more experience in advertising shoots. I have been receiving requests from them increasingly, and they started to come because of the web series. In general, they want a more ‘cinematic’ feel, which is nice. But I don’t believe in the possibility of a quick launch with a feature film and prefer not to feed myself with false hopes. But who knows, maybe Liza and I will finally be noticed by the Russian film community.
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