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'Direct Censorship': Racy Russian Teen Drama 'Outlaw' Won Awards, But Audiences Are Having Trouble Seeing It

Film critics are asking why a movie that had a green light from the Culture Ministry and made a splash at festivals abroad is encountering problems at home.

The teen drama Outlaw provides a racy depiction of a wild side of Soviet-era LGBT life, replete with sex, sacrilege, and coarse language.

At least that is what moviegoers abroad saw in 2019, when the film was first presented to foreign audiences.

But while a censored version – sans the swearing and minus an Orthodox priest in a compromising position -- received clearance from the Culture Ministry and won a handful of awards at a Siberian film festival this spring, the nationwide launch is off to a rocky start after it was accused of being "pornographic."

Whereas many Russian movie rollouts can expect to involve more than 400 theaters across the country, Outlaw director Ksenia Ratushnaya told RFE/RL's Russian Service, her film will open to local audiences in only about 10 theaters on October 29.

"First, the premiere at the Oktyabr failed. This is the main premiere cinema in Moscow," Ratushnaya said. "They really wanted to show it, but they had difficulties because of the subject of the film."

Outlaw director Ksenia Ratushnaya
Outlaw director Ksenia Ratushnaya

The screening at the capital's President Hotel was also canceled, just days before the launch, leaving Ratushnaya's production company scrambling. And ticket sales for a special viewing at the Tretyakov Gallery were halted and the listing removed from the prestigious venue's website without explanation.

The situation has the first-time director and others who are influential in the Russian film scene asking why audiences are being denied the right to see a film even when it has survived the sometimes draconian censorship efforts in a country whose leadership has taken a conservative turn in recent years.

"The film has a distribution certificate. It has all the documents that confirm that the film complies with the laws of the Russian Federation and can be shown anywhere," Ratushnaya told RFE/RL on October 26. "But strange calls [for restrictions] are happening."

The story in Outlaw centers on a gay teen boy and a rebellious young woman -- the outlaw of the title -- who find themselves competing for the love of the most popular athlete in school. A competing plotline focuses on a Soviet general and a transgender dancer who set their careers aside to be together.

The film, set in 1985, is described as a "story of sex and love, rejection and acceptance, passion and depravity," emotions that the producers say are indistinguishable "for anyone pushed to the fringes of society."

The authorities are not saying why such a story should not be told onscreen in Russia, but the answer appears to be in the uproar that followed its debut home appearance at the Spirit Of Fire international film festival in Khanty-Mansiisk in March.

It was shown with only minor changes to the original that had been shown at film festivals in Estonia and the United States, in keeping with the demands of the Culture Ministry. A scene showing an Orthodox priest participating in an orgy was cut, for example, along with the elimination of certain obscenities.

For their efforts, the film by first-time director Ratushnaya and produced by Veronika Chibis walked away with awards for best Russian debut, cinematography, and music. But its success in Siberia didn't come without controversy.

The chairman of the Spirit Of Fire festival's selection committee said he personally checked festivalgoers' documents to ensure nobody under 18 was allowed in.
The chairman of the Spirit Of Fire festival's selection committee said he personally checked festivalgoers' documents to ensure nobody under 18 was allowed in.

"Any curator working in Russia knows from experience what censorship and self-censorship are," film critic Boris Nelepo, who chaired the Spirit Of Fire festival's selection committee, wrote on Facebook on October 23. "But in my life, I don't remember anything comparable to the pressure during the showing of Outlaw."

While Nelepo wrote that "not a single law was violated," he spent hours on the phone dealing with the authorities after they received complaints from angry citizens about "Muscovites bringing debauchery to the pure Siberian land."

He said he personally checked festivalgoers' documents at the entrance to ensure that nobody under 18 was allowed in, and police who checked upon their exit found no violations.

"In my life, I don't remember anything comparable to the pressure during the showing of Outlaw," said film critic Boris Nelepo.
"In my life, I don't remember anything comparable to the pressure during the showing of Outlaw," said film critic Boris Nelepo.

Nevertheless, Nelepo said, investigators from the Prosecutor-General's Office peppered festival organizers with questions about the event, which he said "is always scary, because you are always in the wrong."

"They summoned everyone who works in Khanty-Mansiisk for interrogation," Anisya Kazakova, a curator with the festival, told RFE/RL. "Everyone went there to explain how things worked. At the screening of the film, there were viewers from 18 to 75 years old, but we were suspected of 'gay propaganda among minors.' At the same time, we received threatening messages on social networks."

Nelepo said the authorities fined organizers for violating what is informally known as the "gay propaganda" law -- legislation initiated by conservative lawmaker Yelena Mizulina and signed by President Vladimir Putin in 2013 that imposed harsh restrictions against the positive depiction of homosexuality.

The 65-year old Mizulina, who belongs to a parliamentary commission that prepares changes to the Family Code, has also been behind other controversial proposals, such as decriminalizing certain types of domestic violence and preventing transgender citizens from getting married or adopting children.

The uproar over Outlaw has drawn comparisons to that of other films -- including the 2018 banning of the British comedy The Death Of Stalin, and the sometimes violent campaign against the Russian film Matilda, about a well-documented affair between a teenage ballerina and Tsar Nicholas II -- that were accused of being unpatriotic, sacrilegious, or otherwise offensive to "traditional Russian values."

With the arrival this year of new faces at the Culture Ministry -- including new minister Olga Lyubimova, a self-described "liberal-minded Orthodox" believer who raised eyebrows for previous drug use and admissions that she was "not a cultural person" -- there had been hope that the days of restrictions on artistry were over.

"All year long we seemed happy about the changing of places among members of the Culture Ministry, the arrival of young and educated people there," Nelepo wrote in his Facebook post. Now he is asking why so few are calling out the authorities' actions as "direct censorship" and demanding the abolishment of the law against "LGBT propaganda," which he described as "fascist" and unfit for a country of the 21st century.

If there is a happy ending to the pressure being encountered by Outlaw, it is in that the film will eventually be available to a broader audience -- albeit after three weeks, when it is due to be released on almost all Russian online platforms.

"Censorship will be defeated," Ratushnaya told RFE/RL. "We, of course, rely on an online release, because many viewers -- even if they want to watch a film that has such scandalous fame -- are afraid to go to the movies."

Written by Michael Scollon, with reporting by RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Dmitry Volchek