In September a trailer surfaced for a forthcoming Russian film titled Outlaw, by first-time feature director (and full-time PR professional) Ksenia Ratushnaya. Described as a “story of sex and love, rejection and acceptance, passion and depravity,” the trailer caused an immediate buzz despite the film not even having a confirmed release date. Ratushnaya and her producer Veronika Chibis promised to serve up a sexually explicit and visually stylish story about LGBTQ life in Russia. The film tells dual love stories: one a love triangle between gay teen Nikita (Viktor Tarasenko), violent jock Alpha (Gleb Kaluzhny), and popular girl Outlaw (Liza Kashintseva); the other a romance between a general (Sergey Epishev) and a transgender dancer (Evgeny Okorokov) in the Soviet 80s. These are topics that are scarcely touched upon in Russian cinema, where the so-called “gay propaganda law” introduced in 2013 has been used to suppress public discourse about LGBTQ issues; the same law will probably prevent Outlaw from getting a domestic cinematic release. The Calvert Journal spoke to Ratushnaya and Chibis about how they managed to get the film made, their intentions and influences, and the challenges involved in telling LGBTQ stories in modern Russia.
Ksenia, why did you decide to swap your career in PR for cinema? And why did you want to shoot a film about this kind of narrative?
I can’t say that I’ve fully turned away from PR. My agency, Irony Productions, is still fully operational. And I intend to continue mixing directing and business. At the same time, I could never say that PR was my calling. For me, cinema is art and PR is a pleasant way of earning money. The main theme in Outlaw is inner and outer freedom, which has always been important for me. The second theme is the impossibility of reciprocal love lasting for longer than a single happy moment. The fact that my protagonists are gay, transgender, a psychopath-philosopher, derives from my desire to find the most personally interesting way of expressing that idea. Of course, I truly sympathise and empathise with the problems of LGBTQ people, inasmuch as in Russia they are subjected to this day to injustice, patriarchy, wild and blind discrimination.
Veronika, how did Ksenia convince you to produce this film? What was it like for you to work with a director making their feature debut?
Working with themes of sex and violence in a project of this scale is always a serious challenge. And I like that. But the first draft of the script left me with some questions. On my way to meet with Ksenia I was planning on turning her down, but after a few minutes of talking to her I realised that I wanted to work on this. Ksenia has an unbelievable bravery and ability to get stuff done. Every one of the protagonists in the film is her. She explores herself truthfully through the art. When you work with first-timers you’re usually a mixture of a supervisor and a mother. But Ksenia is not your average debutant. She’s an intellectual without a professional Russian cinematic education. She doesn’t think in terms of stereotypes applied by the system, she doesn’t play at being Tarkovsky.
What were your cinematic influences?
Ksenia: In some scenes, even at the script-writing stage, I decided to employ references to Lynch’s Blue Velvet, Visconti’s Death in Venice, George Lucas’s Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon, Laurence Dunmore’s The Libertine, and Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals. That might seem like a lot, but really, I was more influenced by literature, painting, architecture, and other forms of art. Everything that I love went into Outlaw, a very strange and beautiful mix, my blood.
Veronika: In addition to those that Ksenia has listed, I’d add Love and Enter the Void by Gaspar Noë. The use of coloured light in the film is inspired by his work. One of the main tasks we set ourselves was to suffuse the entire film with references to fine art. Many shots are allusions to paintings. Some of these are more obvious, like the party scene with its living fragments of Bosch; some are subtler. One small spoiler: the Minotaur makes an appearance in the film.
Can you explain how you went about funding the film? What are your options in terms of securing a release in Russia?
Ksenia: The financing of the film was handled by out producers, Veronika and Alexey Pashchenko. At the same time, I tried to earn a bit more in my PR work, so that I could use my own money in the event that we failed to secure funding. A lot of people were put off by the radicality and braveness of the film, which are not typical in our domestic market for whatever reason. That same problem is likely to rear its head again when it comes to securing a licence for release. But in any case, we will try and release the film in Russia in the second half of 2019. If we can, we’ll start with festivals. If festivals won’t take us and they won’t give us a licence, we’ll make Outlaw freely available for Russian audiences.
“Before we started working on the film we didn’t realise the high level of anti-LGBTQ prejudice in the creative sphere”
Veronika: We tried to find co-financing for the production but we were met with complete incomprehension. And not only because Ksenia is a first-time filmmaker. To quote my partner Alexey, Russia is not ready to accept a film with these themes. We spoke to LGBT organisations, to their most renowned representatives, who never miss an opportunity to decry the oppression of their rights. However, as it turned out, these people try to distance themselves from certain topics once the conversation turns to concrete action. At the moment, several western companies are interested in the film. We hope that they will join as co-producers. Then they might not dare to refuse us a licence. But no matter what happens, we’ll do everything we can for the film to reach its audience.
What did you learn about LGBTQ politics in Russia during the shoot? How did you make sure that the film was true to life?
Ksenia: The LGBTQ themes didn’t really complicate the process of pre-production and shooting, everything went smoothly without any governmental restrictions or prohibitions. The only thing we couldn’t do was use underage actors. I’ve long been interested in the histories, psychology, and fates of the LGBTQ community. I did have to read some studies into the lives of gays and lesbians in Russia in the 19th and 20th centuries (I wasn’t able to find any specific research on transgender people). I used a lot of what I learned from these books in the script. Of course, there’s also a lot in the film that comes from my own life. Whilst I myself am not LGBTQ, love is love and freedom is freedom for everyone.
Veronika: We didn’t feel any pressure on the part of the government. Or we haven’t yet. But we did encounter more than our share of narrowmindedness from our fellow citizens. Every so often we’d get comments: “Good Lord! Why make a film about gays? Can’t they just live their lives quietly?” We were asked to leave a coworking space, because by chance someone found the script in the printer and read the orgy scene. There were plenty of rumours about the kind of film we were shooting. A lot of actors turned down roles, because they were afraid that the film would be taken as their personal coming out. Honestly, before we started working on Outlaw we didn’t realise the high level of anti-LGBTQ prejudice in the creative sphere. As for the authenticity of the script, Ksenia did her homework. We consulted representatives of the LGBTQ community, they told us about events that matched what was described on the page. Actually, the real-life versions were even darker. We hope that Outlaw might help people struggling with these kinds of problems to feel less alone. Beauty alone won’t save the world, but combined with love it might.