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 to, do 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.