Ed Wolf’s "We Were Here" Diary, Part One

Published 31, Oct, 2012

Ed Wolf: “I was invited to Kiev to attend a screening of "We Were Here." I didn't realize the intensity of what I was getting into until the trip began to unfold, so I thought I would keep in touch with my Facebook family while I was gone.."

Ed Wolf’s

Friday, October 12th, 2012

 A week from tonight I’ll be flying to the city of Kiev, in the Ukraine. “We Were Here”, the award winning AIDS documentary by David Weissman, will be screened there as part of the Molodist International Film Festival, “the major regular cinema event in Ukraine and Eastern Europe. Every year the festival presents more than 250 films from all over the world.” 

Attending the IFF this year will be especially interesting because a law is trying to be passed by some in the Ukrainian  government that would “make it illegal to talk about homosexuality in public and in media. Also illegal is the import, distribution and broadcast of video, photo and audio products that encourages homosexuality.”  I'm going to participate in a panel entitled "Creativity, Propaganda and Censorship. What to do when the government pushes too far?"

Wednesday, October 17th

Getting ready for my arrival on Saturday:

"Ce moja persha poi’zdka v Ukrai’nu."

which means:

"This is my first visit to the Ukraine." 

Thursday, October 18th

My invitation to attend the Eastern European Film Festival, where "We Were Here" will be screened, includes this paragraph:

"In Ukraine, 289 members of parliament voted in support of the bill which aims to prohibit the so-called "propaganda of homosexualism." If this draft law is approved in second hearing, speaking openly about your sexual tastes or assuming that to be gay is ok may result in imprisonment, as it will be considered as 'propaganda of homosexuality'. If you don't fit the box - be either silent, or punished. What to do when the state pushes too far? We leave the answer for wide range of human rights defenders, LGBT activists, creative professionals, journalists and all concerned, invited to take part in discussion."

I'm going to participate in a panel entitled "Creativity, Propaganda and Censorship. What to do when the government pushes too far?"

Thursday, October 18th

Ukraine is the largest country in Europe. Almost 500,000 Ukranians are infected with HIV; it is the only European country, along with Russia, where the epidemic continues to grow.  With an HIV prevalence among people who inject drugs of 21.5 %, Ukraine is experiencing the most severe HIV epidemic in Eastern Europe. The majority of those infected are under 30 years of age; a full 25% of those affected are still in their teens. 

Friday morning, October 19th

Waiting for Homobile (Queer owned and operated taxi service) to take me to San Francisco International. Found this: 

KIEV, Oct 2 (Reuters) - Ukraine's parliament on Tuesday took a first step to making the promotion of homosexuality a criminal offence punishable by prison. The draft law does not clearly define what it means by the "promotion of homosexuality" but says it is a threat to national security.

"Certain media outlets, going against the interests of society and the state, are promoting a tolerant attitude towards things like sexual relations between people of the same sex," the law's authors said in an accompanying note."The spread of homosexuality constitutes a threat to national security as it leads to an HIV/AIDS epidemic and also destroys the institute of family and can trigger a demographic crisis."

I’ll be there in 24 hours. More to be revealed . . . 

Friday morning, October 19th

As I stepped off the curb, into the Homobile to take me to SFO, I unknowingly stepped in something you never want to step in. I didn’t find this out, however, til I was at the airport, removing my shoes to go through security clearance. I stood there, with the bottom of my smeared shoe face up, asking the security guard if they had a piece of paper to put in the gray bin. He offered me a small latex glove and said, “Here, use this.” If you’ve ever tried to put a size 16 shoe in a small latex glove, you would know it’s no easy task. The silver lining: no one wants to be near you when you have something smeared on your shoe. Everyone gets out of your way . . . it’s like being in the express lane. 20 hours later I arrived Kiev, safe and sound. 

Saturday afternoon, October 20th

My hotel is floating in the river. The young man who comes to help me with my bags says it’s not really a boat; only built to look that way. I am exhausted, but a woman with the Festival tells me the Opening Ceremonies are about to begin at the Kiev National Opera House. Built in 1901, the Kiev Symphony will provide the score for a recently restored classic Ukranian silent film from 1929. I hop in a cab and make it in time. I make it thru part of film before falling asleep in my chair. I find my way back to the hotel and sleep for 10 hours. 

Sunday morning, October 21st

After breakfast, I head to the city center. The Molodist Film Festival is in its 42nd year and is screening 250 films over 10 days in 5 theatres. It’s a massive undertaking. I’m finding it very difficult to navigate/communicate as very few people speak English. Today is the panel I’m supposed to sit on: "Creativity, Propaganda and Censorship. What to do when the government pushes too far?" I’ve gotten to the theatre early, so I sit outside to wait. Kiev was held under siege in 1941, heavily damaged, and occupied by the Nazis for 2 years, so it’s an interesting mix of old and new architecture. 

Sunday afternoon

I’m sitting on a bench when a black Jaguar sedan pulls up in front of me. The uniformed driver gets out, opens the rear door and a little dog, a pug, jumps out into the street. I can see someone sitting in the back seat, but they stay in the car. The dog’s wearing a little fur coat and tiny red sandals on each foot.  As the driver waits for the dog to finish its business (this seems to be a theme on this trip) I quickly try to find my camera but by the time I have it, the dog has jumped back in the car and the door closed. The panel is about to begin, so I head back into the theatre. 

The theatre is packed. There are six seats on the stage, microphones, a headset for me to hear the translator explain to me what’s being said. The head of the Festival is there, as well as a representative from Amnesty International, a gay rights leader, a woman representing the artist’s community, a journalist, and me. This extremely homophobic bill, if it’s get passed, will make showing films like “We Were Here,” illegal and punishable with up to 5 years in prison, and the queer community and its supporters are very concerned. Just as the panel begins, a journalist in the audience starts yelling loudly, demanding to know why the Festival is promoting this public discussion supporting the homosexual agenda. Some of the audience members shout “Be quiet!,” Stop being rude!,” while the moderator calls for order. Cameras are clicking, videos are recording. I’m getting nervous. What am I going to say? 

The moderator regains control and the discussion continues. He describes the history of how this repressive bill has come to be written, using the “Protecting of Children” as the foremost reason why positive images or attitudes of gays and lesbians need to eliminated. Another speaker says that if this law’s passed, it will be impossible for Ukraine to become a member of the EU (European Union) something the entire country has been working towards for quite a while. The disruptive journalist starts to complain, loudly, about the term LGBT, how he doesn’t understand all the terms, but demands that an ‘H’ be added for Heterosexuals. He’s jeering, trying to change the course of the conversation. An audience member stands and asks for a microphone. He says he is straight but the conservative right and the extremists need to understand that in this post-Soviet era, when any group’s rights are infringed upon it’s the beginning of the infringement of everyone’s rights. There’s a strong round of applause that tries to drown out the journalist’s repeated shouting of “homosexual propaganda!.” 

Everyone on the panel eloquently speaks about the history of Ukraine, how hard it’s worked to become post-Soviet, how, when they declared their independence in 1991, one of the first things they did was legalize homosexuality. (For the record, sodomy laws were not repealed in the U.S. til 2003.) They all want to live in a country that is open and free and loving to all Ukranians. The obnoxious journalist often tries to interrupt, bringing up unrelated issues, trying to drown out the other speakers. Nearly 2 hours have passed and everyone on the panel as well as a number of people from the audience have all spoken. I’m the only one left. The moderator describes the ‘Sunny Bunny’ program, which is a group of queer films that are shown within the larger Modolist Festival.  He announces that a representative from Sunny Bunny is with us tonight and then asks me a very long and complicated question about queer filmmaking, censorship, and how far I’d be willing to push back if a similar homophobic law was threatening gay people in the U.S. 

The audience looks at me. I’ve been sitting here for over two hours now, am exhausted, have made notes of everything that’s been said so far and have a dozen different ways to start.  Suddenly I’m not even sure what question was posed to me. So I simply begin by saying how grateful I am to be here, part of this powerful discussion, and how it feels like no accident that I’m here in Ukraine today. I tell them I’m here to represent a film that tells a story about another period in history when the gay community was under siege, stricken by a terrible new disease at a time when the authorities did not care about what was happening to us. And not only the authorities, but also the churches, the medical establishment, sometimes our own families. I ask the audience to come to the screening of We Were Here and see how San Franciscan gays and lesbians responded in such a difficult and frightening time. 

I assure them that what is happening in Ukraine is being watched by the queer community in the US, just as we all, American and Ukranian alike, are watching what is happening in Uganda. “The whole world is watching,” I say, in a grandiose moment, but it strikes a chord in the audience. The rude journalist yells something at me and I share with the audience that I’ve never been in a meeting like this where the opposition is so present and vocal in the room. As disruptive as he is, I say, there’s something refreshing, for me, to have the enemy be so visible and loud, instead of hiding in the background somewhere, It can be a very helpful, I think, and positive thing  to have one’s opposition sitting next to you. It can help to clarify one’s responses, choose one’s words wisely, and know what ignorance they are up against. 

I say a few more things and feel my energy lagging. I end with this; “If there are those of you in the audience who are struggling with the letters GLBT, you’d better get ready because new letters are coming, more and more.” I look at the disruptive journalist. “I promise you that when the rights of all sexual orientations are protected, then we will put an H at the end of GLBT because our work will be done, Queer rights are human rights.” The journalist stands and shouts something at me. The translator is polite and doesn’t translate his words, but I get his intention. The moderator calls for order. The journalist says he won’t be silenced, that he is speaking for others in the room. The moderator asks everyone who would like the journalist to go away to applaud. The entire room erupts into a standing ovation and as simply as that, he is gone. 

The meeting is winding down. It’s been almost 2-1/2 hours since we began. The final discussion is about what to do if this terrible law passes. I’m beginning to understand that there’s a very good chance that it will. Even though homosexuality was legalized in Ukraine over 20 years ago, the new parliament has become very conservative and is using social issues like gay rights to avoid more important conversations about unemployment and education (sound familiar?) One of the young men in the audience stands up and says if the new law passes he will protest in the streets because . . . he pauses before stating, “I am gay.” The man sitting next to me on the panel leans forward to his microphone says: “I will protest too, because I am gay.” The moderator joins in and I see that they are all coming out publicly, committing themselves to civil disobedience should the law pass. A very very powerful and solemn moment. I have tears in my eyes as people begin to leave the theatre. 

A man and woman approach me. The woman explains that she is an interpreter and this man is Bogdan, the Executive Director of a large social service agency here in Kiev. He is hoping that I will attend a panel discussion on the topic of HIV on Tuesday afternoon, before We Were Here screens. He would also like me to meet some HIV positive men who live in Kiev, would that be possible? I say certainly and we set up a time and place for me to meet up with them tomorrow. A woman from the Festival asks me if I would like to go and see a film with her and she takes me on an incredible dreamlike journey deep into the subway into one of the suburbs of Kiev. The subway is deep underground, maybe 10-11 stories down, and the escalator is like a ride in an amusement park. Several times I have to hold her arm so my shakey knees don’t give way. When we come up from the train, we walk through a network of dark alleys, passing shop windows full of strange wares. It’s exactly the kind of experience you travel to another country to have. We reach the theatre but as the film begins, I can sense how exhausted I am. I hop in a taxi and head back to the hotel, wondering what tomorrow will bring. 

To be continued . .