Part Eight: We Were Here
Wednesday, November 27th, 2013
Today is the 35th anniversary of Harvey Milk’s assassination. I hadn’t realized that my last day in Russia and the screening of “We Were Here,” would coincide with this sad date. I go down for breakfast but the pancakes with cream cheese and the croissants taste different today. I drink the strong coffee and go back upstairs
I’m worried about tonight. Every Side by Side screening this week has been disrupted by bomb threats. I read a news story about the incident at last night’s showing of “Blue Is the Warmest Color.” It turns out that there were other events occurring in the same building threatened by the bomb, but ours was the only venue they evacuated. I’ve been told that the people with cameras were there to document some minors who were sent into the theatre specifically to put the festival organizers in legal jeopardy and that the whole incident is simply a plot created to discredit Side by Side and get them to stop the festival. Which of course will not happen.
I decide to stay in my hotel room today, gather my thoughts for tonight, begin to pack. I’ll go to the airport several hours after the screening of “We Were Here”. I receive a photo from Kirk; our dear friends have had a healthy baby boy. Another message is from Bard; he’s had his backpack stolen. A final message from Olga; she’ll meet us in the lobby at seven to take us to the venue.
I take a hot shower, shave, put on my good luck cowgirl shirt. I feel the poignancy of my last night here with these extraordinary and resilient people. I see myself in the elevator mirror as I head down to the lobby. I look tired.
Olga is there waiting. When I ask her how she is, she responds with her usual, “Fine,” but I know better. Bard comes down to join us. He makes plans with Olga to go to the police station tomorrow to report his stolen bag.
One more time we go underground into the behemoth stations below and come up into another part of the city. The festival organizers keep finding new settings to continue the screenings; it’s like a massive Russian scavenger hunt. We walk past the venue entrance and have to circle back. The usual crowd of police aren’t here tonight, only the hired security guards. We have to show them our passports before entering, even though they already know us. This is clearly just a job for them; no smile of recognition.
We go down into basement, deep underground, through a honeycomb of red brick hallways. When I raise my arms, I touch the ceiling. I see Manny with a little dog in her arms, and then Gulya and Tanya as well; in fact, they’re all there, all the kind and generous people I’ve met over the past six days. I ask Manny if I can have a few minutes to say something before the screening begins, just in case there’s another bomb scare that will require us having to leave early. She says of course, and leads me under a large brick archway into a room full of chairs facing a projection screen. I’m introduced to a tall man wearing a suit. He’s a member of the US Consulate here in St. Petersburg. He’s very welcoming and asks me about my trip so far. I tell him how impressed I am with the courage and persistence of the Side by Side staff and volunteers to carry on through all the attempts to stop the festival. He holds my hand and wholeheartedly agrees; I can see that he understands what they are up against. He introduces me to a woman, also named Olga, who will be my translator tonight. The lights begin to flash and everyone moves to their seats. The screening of “We Were Here” is about to begin.
A volunteer introduces the man from the Consulate. He speaks enough Russian not to need an interpreter; I envy him for that. A few more words and then the translator touches my hand; they’re introducing me. I go to the front, say that I don’t want to jinx tonight’s event, but if something happens akin to what’s occurred at every other screening this week, I want to be sure to thank everyone involved with the festival for hosting me, feeding me, guiding me through the subways, and all the rest. I tell them I thought I was coming to St. Petersburg simply to represent “We Were Here,” but that I’ve received so much more than I ever expected, not the least of which is the discovery that I can walk again after my double knee replacement. I talk about Harvey Milk and that today is the 35th anniversary of his death. I relate Harvey’s slogan, “You gotta give them hope,” and how they, the festival organizers, audience and LGBT activists of St. Petersburg would inspire him greatly if he were alive. My voice begins to crack and tears well up. I thank them again, return to my seat, and the lights go dim. The first few notes of the music that opens “We Were Here” echo throughout the honeycomb of bricks so hidden away underground.
I’m watching it now as if for the first time. All the effort, planning, creativity and guts that have gone into making this happen—I’m glued to the screen. Guy talks about selling flowers, Daniel about hoping to meet a blond surfer, Eileen about her fellow gay male nurses, none of whom are alive today.
Suddenly Manny’s little dog barks, a chair gets tipped over. I start to jump up, waiting for someone to yell, “There’s a bomb! Get out of the building!” But no such thing happens. The story is allowed to continue. Paul talks about the early reports of the gay cancer, Daniel the heartbreaking failure of the Suriman trial. I can hear someone crying behind me.
By the time Eileen describes collecting eyes from patients who have died, I have to get up. The suspense of waiting for someone to come running into the basement to stop the screening is unbearable. I find my way to the back of the room, walk slowly down a hallway, come upon another room full of people sitting in the dark. They’re also watching “We Were Here” in another room. I sit down; someone brings me tea. Daniel describes his terrifying late night drive to the hospital and his partner dying on the way. Two women sitting next to me are weeping. And then the film’s credits appear and the lights come up. We’ve made it through the entire film without interruption.
The applause echoes through the screening rooms. Some microphones are set up and I sit in front of the audience with the interpreter on one side and a moderator on the other. I begin by acknowledging that we’ve made it through the first film of the festival uninterrupted. I suggest that not only have the organizers been successful in finding a good place to show the film, but that there are many LGBT people who have already crossed over and whose spirits have protected us tonight.
The responses and questions about the film come fast. There are many thank yous to David and Bill for making the film and for those of us who were interviewed. Someone wants to know how Daniel could still be alive, how long it took for successful treatments to become available, how public opinion and funding changed from the early years of ignorance and disinterest to a period of more compassion and response. I answer them as best I can, emphasizing the role of volunteerism in so much of what happened in those early days, from all the emotional and practical support organizations, to participation in clinical trials, through the years of activism by ACT-UP.
The issue arises, again, about what it will take for the LGBT community of St. Petersburg to come together. I tell them that even in my short time in the city, my gaydar, with which they all recognize and resonate, has gone off repeatedly. In a city of 5 million residents, there are thousands and thousands of LGBT people. They know it and I know it. But what does it take to activate an individual, a community, a country? I don’t know the answer for them, but they are all motivated and clearly moving forward, searching for one.
Suddenly it’s 11pm. The moderator brings the discussion to a close. I thank the audience again, tell them Sunday is World AIDS Day, and that “We Were Here” will screen again at the Castro Theatre. I promise them that at the end of the film I will ask the audience in San Francisco to shout out, “Queer community of Russia, we are with you!” I tell them that even though they might not hear us, to know that it is true.
There are many people to talk to afterward. It’s an emotional blur of faces and hands and hugs. The American Consulate has stayed for the screening and he is clearly moved. I say goodbye to Valery at LaSky, tell him about an International Faery Gathering that I am a part of, that we would like him to come. Olga has to leave and we say a tearful farewell. At the end, there are a handful of us who decide to go out and have a meal together. Manny asks if I am glad that I came to St. Petersburg. I tell her that I have gotten so much, so much more than I brought. She says the evening was a major success.
“It was,” she says, “the bomb!”
This article previously appeared in The Believer here.