Some Quick Thoughts on Channel 4’s Hunted

I tried not to pre-judge Hunted, an edition of Channel 4’s Dispatches about homophobia in Russia, broadcast tonight. I really did. Yet having just watched it I have to attempt to articulate the despair it induced in me.

The issue of homophobia in Russia has captured a massive international audience in the past year, in no small part due to the interventions of celebrities such as Stephen Fry and Harvey Fierstein. As stories of the hardships faced by Russia’s LGBT (but really mainly gay male) community have dramatically increased there have been concomitant protests in countless Western cities, boycotts of Russian vodka, a near-endless litany of e-petitions and a growing industry in ‘concern porn’ where any individual or company speaking about the issue is seemingly guaranteed a disproportionate amount of attention, no matter how irrelevant their intervention. I wrote previously about a lot of my problems with the growing hysteria, which seemed largely ill-informed and enormously hypocritical. I think it’s safe to say that the situation hasn’t improved – in fact, as Sochi has neared, the hysteria has grown. We need only look to yesterday to see examples of the self-serving drivel being pushed out in the name of the gays of Russia (it’s notable that the Brewdog ‘promotion’ continues with the itself-weirdly-homophobic ‘making fun of Putin’s masculinity and implying he’s a closet case’ tack taken by many already.)

Nonetheless, there is clearly a very real issue here and it’s entirely right that it be looked at. It’s also entirely right that we in the West help if we can. So when I learned that Channel 4’s respected documentary series Dispatches was covering the issue, I was quietly hopeful that it would do so in a constructive way. This hope largely faded when I learned that the episode was called Hunted, a provocatively emotive title which feeds into the frenzy that shows no sign of abating. Nonetheless, I wanted to give it a chance.

I wasn’t just disappointed, I was crushed. Dispatches had an hour to explore this issue and they used it largely to show various examples of gay people being beaten, harrassed, abused and denigrated. It was shocking and undeniably ‘powerful’ – absolutely no-one deserves to be treated in these ways. Yet what was the point? We’ve been told that these things are happening over and over again by the media. Showing the attacks certainly made them viscerally real but there was an added, horrible sense that we were voyeurs contributing to the humiliation of the victims. Were all of these individuals approached afterwards to give proper, reasoned consent to having their brutalisation shown on UK television?! Did the film-makers have any contact with them whatsoever beyond the actual incidents? After perhaps the most shocking and upsetting footage, where a man is lured to a flat by a gang and then attacked by them, we are told in voice-over that the film-makers followed the victim as he left to offer support. We learn nothing more. The victims on the whole remained just that – faceless victims without identity serving only to shock a UK audience.

As voyeurs watching acts of brutality we instinctively feel angry and want to help. Yet we also feel powerless. This is where the emotive rush to ‘do something, anything’ so easily enters and where the documentary could have made a real difference. Instead, it played to what the audience already ‘knew’ – it added almost nothing. It seemed to me, for example, that for the most part the documentary was actually about the rise of vigilantism in Putin’s Russia rather than the rise of homophobia. You wouldn’t know this because it made absolutely zero effort to contextualise the vigilante groups it kept showing, interviewing and even infiltrating. There was not a single mention of the fact that Russian vigilantism has been a major problem for immigrants and ethnic minorities as well as ‘social deviant’ groups such as drug users. It’s really not difficult to find journalism which gives this very important context. Scott Long’s blog post here is particularly good on it and you’ll learn more about the problem in reading it than from the hour spent with Hunted. The first few paragraph’s of Scott’s post are particularly relevant here. Note, for example:

Clips and snapshots keep cropping up on Western blogs. Here’sa  ”horrific video showing Russian thugs have started entrapping gay men and boys,” posted by John Aravosis, with 85,000 hits on YouTube. Yet how can you evaluate it if nobody bothers to say where the hell they got it?  Nor do most of the reposters have any qualms about showing the full faces of the people in these videos and photos: apparently once they’ve been outed and humiliated in Russia, they’re fair game in the rest of the world. (“While I am loathe to expose this young man any further, but [sic] this must be shown,” Melanie Nathan blogs while hawking one video. No, it mustn’t.) There’s a panicked compulsion to give us more and more pictures to consume, partly because they drive up Web traffic, partly because they lend an urgency that makes mere explanations seem distracting. But you can’t make sense of it unless you can say, not just see, something about what’s going on.

That could easily have been written about Hunted, which arouses an urge for quick action but tells you absolutely nothing about why any of this is going on. We kept being told than homophobia was on the rise in Russia but it was presented as some mass sociopathic tendency rather than something intricately connected to the rise in racism, anti-immigrant sentiment, attacks on the reproductive autonomy of women or the general human rights situation in the country. We were given a very brief interview with a member of the Russian Orthodox Church and told nothing about how or why they are such a major force in modern Russia. Perhaps most egregiously, the sole attempt to explore how homophobia may be a political tool for Putin (rather than some bizarre fixation) came in a couple of sentences from a Russian activist stating that his domestic policies were a disaster and he needed a smokescreen. This seems like a quite fundamental assertion to explore in an hour-long documentary about homophobia in Russia but it was left at that. If the documentary had looked at this more thoroughly, it would certainly have encountered the strong body of opinion that Putin is not only shoring up his conservative base with the homophobia, but also drawing on strong anti-Western sentiment. This joins some crucial dots when it comes to other big issues, as seen in this Al Jazeera piece:

This economic “stimulus” by Putin may jumpstart his flagging economy that was robust at the height of his popularity in 2000. He enjoyed a popularity built on oil and gas profits that have since dried up. No longer a media star, he has lost support and now tries to find it in his right wing flank with an official homophobic nationalism. This positions him against the West with its so-called excessive rights for gays and abortion. A new anti-Americanism thrives cloaked in a mix of homophobic nationalism and asylum for Edward Snowden.

It’s not difficult to see how Putin’s opposition to Western ‘intervention’ in Syria fits into this. It’s also impossible not to see how the ostentatious Western boycotts and clicktivism could fit right into Putin’s narrative and actually bolster his position.

Hunted had no interest in such analysis, instead viewing everything through the prism of an all-pervasive homophobia. The police hassling a couple of protesters was portrayed as being because they were gay, while the troubles faced by an anti-Putin schoolteacher were seen to be because she supported gay rights. No doubt homophobia played a role in both but it seems somewhat disingenuous not to note that brutal crackdowns on all dissent is a hallmark of Putin’s Russia. Indeed, without wishing for a second to downplay the horrors shown on screen in Hunted, the film’s determination to push its message meant that life for gay people was shown to be unremittingly grim and desperate. It’s fair to say that there are far more positive presentations of Russian gay life out there (and even the documentary’s repeated assertions that the state did nothing about anti-gay violence doesn’t bear scrutiny, with one of the main ringleaders of the vigilante groups facing extradition after fleeing the country).

In short, it seems to me that the film will do more harm than good. It had an opportunity to inform, to educate, to provide not only valuable but essential context to what’s happening in Russia. Instead it affirmed every nightmarish vision of a crazed, pariah country which needs to be saved from itself (rather than a country which our own leaders are all too happy to sell arms todo business with and buy fuel from).It continued to present homophobia as an issue separate from wider human rights, the kind of attitude which has seen ‘activists’ suddenly noticing that, hey, those evil conglomerates McDonald’s and Coca-Cola don’t seem to be very nice! The anger and despair it aroused will almost certainly be directed towards more social media updates, more e-petitions and more aimless demands that something be done. For me, that’s an unforgivable outcome for a film which showed such inhumane brutality.

For a far more constructive look at the question of ‘what is to be done’ with regards to the issue, this second Scott Long post is essential reading.

If you don’t follow Scott Long’s blog, you really should. Not least because it’s the sole outlet I’ve seen which has attempted to examine the providence of the horrendous images of torture which have been spread far and wide re: Russia and LGBT rights. After the initial, visceral repulsion the first instinct of any thinking person would surely be to ask “what, where, who, why”? The website which initially brought them to people’s attention has had a swift overhaul and now features a prominent button where you can donate money. Its address remains a PO Box in America. Yet almost no-one paused even momentarily before spreading these horrible images. As it happens, Long details a bleak story behind them, albeit one more complex and wide-ranging than we’d been led to believe. It is indeed curious that Russia’s human rights abuses have been elided to LGBT ones, with other issues actively removed from discussion by the idiotic torrent of “if this happened to blacks/Jews/disabled people et al’ comparisons.

Of course it’s odd that Long complains about the “ceaseless circulation of these images of violence” yet embeds so many in his post. They inspire emotional responses – of course they do – which threaten to overwhelm the text. Gore Vidal made an off-the-cuff remark in an interview in 2009 which I think is quite illuminating here:

Does anyone care what Americans think? They’re the worst-educated people in the First World. They don’t have any thoughts, they have emotional responses, which good advertisers know how to provoke.

He was (perceptively) discussing gay marriage in America yet I think his words have a far wider application. We have seen before how easily stories and images of barbarity are shared and spread without thought. It is almost always done in the name of ‘raising awareness’ but it always and inevitably has an impact (and role) beyond that. It has most definitely been used to justify war, for example. You’ll note, then, that in one of the comments on Long’s piece someone takes him to task for “imperialist propaganda” and observes that it’s oddly convenient that this ongoing story, with roots dating back years, has suddenly blown up when Edward Snowden has exposed a ‘national security’ state in Western countries to rival the best (worst) of the Soviet Union. Snowden has, of course, been forced to flee to Russia to evade the ongoing persecution of whistle-blowers which has been such a brutal hallmark of the Obama administration. Yet in the space of a week more people rallied to the cause (and protest) of ‘LGBT rights in Russia’ than have ever done likewise for Manning and co.

This doesn’t, of course, negate the brutality of what is happening in Russia but it does mean that as Westerners we should take a moment to examine our responses and who they serve. Homophobia is after all not confined to Russia, even at a governmental level. Yet it would not serve our governments well for us to be mobilising against the authorities in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE or Bahrain, to name a few. Hell, many of the same gay men who went to protest at the Russian embassy on Saturday were certainly happy to support Eurovision when it was held in the brutal dictatorship of Azerbaijan which has a history of torture, indefinite detentions, kidnappings, politicised arrests and more. Then again, any educated person reading that sentence will have alarm bells going off in their head because the United Kingdom and United States have their own recent (and current) history of these things too.

This complexity is seen by some as detracting from the issue at hand: easily the single largest response to the blog I wrote about this previously was “at least they’re doing something!” I find this dispiriting. Rushing to ‘do something’ is not an inherent good, especially when there is little effort to understand the situation beyond conveniently simple responses. As Long reveals regarding that truly appalling photo of the Western activists recreating one of the torture images with rainbow flags, it can exacerbate situations. It can spread disinformation and fear. It can and is used as propaganda against countries which are not amenable to Western interests. Most importantly, it can (and does) crowd out the voices of those experiencing the reality of the situation who should *always* lead such movements. The bizarre debates in the media and on social media over whether there should be a boycott/ban/change of venue are all conducted by Western voices with zero stake in the outcome who make no reference to views in Russia. It reads like egoism but worse than that, it reads as smug superiority and racism. The speed with which Stephen Fry has distanced himself from his letter, describing it as unrealistic, is staggering. In the middle of all of this confusion, what is the actual point? Why were all of those people waving the bizarrely homophobic placards of Putin-as-effeminate-homosexual and expressing their desire to ‘piss on Putin’? To ‘raise awareness’. To ‘do something’. I pointed out in my last post that the UK sells arms to Russia (amongst many other despotic regimes) and haven’t seen it mentioned anywhere since. Surely that’s something people in the UK could take a lead on today in order to make some material difference, something which doesn’t involve imposing views onto people in a country few of us have set foot in?

I don’t doubt that people feel angered by what’s happening but the speed with which this has become the cause du jour and the drums beating for ‘doing something’ against actually thinking and listening (from many, certainly not all) instantly bring that Vidal quote to mind. They are emotional responses, easily manipulated and prone to self-aggrandisement rather than reflective engagement. It’s not a sign of how ‘civilised’ we are as a people that we spread stories of murder from dubious sources and without the slightest clue of what we’re talking about; on the contrary, that’s a sign of profound and disturbing arrogance.There are people out there who are trying to tread lightly in all of this, very conscious of their position and the dangers of ‘speaking for’ people in Russia and I know some of them were at the protest on Saturday. So yes, thinking about something should never replace campaigning but the two must go together and reflective engagement with a critical approach to our own position must come first. Racing to pat ourselves on the back merely for “doing something”, as if this has no possible negative connotation or consequence, is little more than well-intentioned vanity. 

Scott Long looks at the torture images from Russia