The current focus on the intersection of Russia, its anti-LGBT legislation and the upcoming Olympics makes the 2012 film "Gay Champions" very timely viewing.
Directed by Nicolaas Veul and Tim Besten, the 48-minute documentary opens in Amsterdam with the two young filmmakers interviewing friends for reactions about an imminent trip to capture the first-ever Pride event in Kiev, Ukraine. "Good Luck!" and "Don’t get beat up" are about as much enthusiasm as any of them can muster.
Made in a shaky, handheld verité style, the soundtrack mingles a stew of spoken English, Dutch and Ukranian, all subtitled. There is an innocent, silly playfulness as Veul and Besten camp for the camera while documenting their journey. That mood quickly darkens as their couch surfing host and translator asks that they not film too much in her apartment, for fear it could be identified.
The stories told by the people interviewed serve as a stark object lesson for comfortable, entitled Western youth who might wonder what all the fuss is about. The Dutch boys read a Ukrainian guide for LGBT visitors that warns against any stereotypical gestures or body language and encourages men to "always keep your voice as masculine as you can" to avoid confrontation and physical violence.
Stas, the organizer of Gay Alliance and the proposed Pride festival, distributes condoms and lube to visitors through a locked door and speaks of the fear of not knowing whom to trust, while also relishing the rare opportunity to share pictures of his boyfriend with appreciative visitors.
Jalina is an activist who regularly confronts the apathy or downright hostility that the general Ukrainian public has to the concept of equal rights. "A lot of people regard homosexuality as sinful or as a disease," she says flatly, echoing the prevailing opinions of Western culture of 50 years ago.
Veul and Besten also interview Igor Druz, a conservative activist who is very matter of fact in his utter disregard for fairness and justice when it comes to homosexuals. When the young journalists reveal that they are gay, Druz takes off his microphone and walks away in disgust.
The second half of the short film covers the nervous, covert gatherings of people who plan to participate in the Pride event, almost as if preparing for a flash mob but without any of the giddy, eager anticipation. Nervous walkie-talkie and cellphone exchanges ask the would-be revelers to wait, and wait, and wait, until finally the event is called off because anti-gay thugs have learned the location.
Like recent documentaries about LGBT oppression in Africa, "Gay Champions" paints a grim but unsurprising picture of conditions in Eastern Europe. Veul and Besten are engaging storytellers, though their irreverence can sometimes be distracting. Still, the film provides a firsthand connection to what so many LGBT people are still experiencing in large parts of the world.