Review (Jason Stamp, theroaminglife.com)
The second documentary at this year’s festival dealing with the struggles of LGBT athletes is Noam Gonick’s To Russia With Love, which examines the passing of Vladimir Putin’s anti-gay propaganda law leading up to 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. The experiences of out athletes during these games ground this film as the basis for the story but it also delves into the personal struggles of LGBT people living in this fearful and oppressive state. For anyone with a personal sensitive connection to this cause, the film delivers a satisfying emotional punch.
Johnny Weir, gay figure skater and flamboyant on-air personality leads us on a journey into the behind the scenes story of what was happening with other gay athletes leading up to these Olympic Games. With Putin passing this law in summer of 2013, many wondered how this would affect the upcoming event. The film follows several openly gay athletes as they prepare for competition and are struggling with how to handle the situation. Many felt they wanted to make a public statement of some sort during the Games but feared for their safety. The environment for LGBT people in Russia became toxic and there was the very real threat of arrest or worse. In the end, there were no major political statements or messages made by any athletes, an opportunity that some felt was missed.
With the arrival of several documentaries tackling this subject matter, To Russia With Love takes a unique approach. Interviews from Weir, who we get to know outside the public persona, Canadian speedskater Anastasia Bucsis, hockey player Charline Labonté, New Zealand speedskater Blake Skjellerup, Australian snowboarder Belle Brockhoff, Billie Jean King, Greg Louganis, and Mark Tewksbury give us a comprehensive look specifically at the atmosphere surrounding the Sochi Games and the duel lives these athletes lead as activists.
Woven into this narrative was a parallel story that collided with many of the gay athletes featured in the film. We meet several gay men living in Russia and come to learn about the realities of what they face in day-to-day life in that country. One man is determined to host the first ever Russian Open Games, a place for LGBT athletes to compete. With the help and support of diving legend Greg Louganis, they fight repeated threats and subversion attempts to shut the event down and compete.
We also get to know 17-year-old Vlad, a young man who was publicly outed at school and faces a war zone every single day. It’s heartbreaking to hear his story of what he has endured, including from the principal and staff, the adults students are supposed to be able to trust, and the horrific things that have been done to him. He reaches out to Billie Jean King, tennis star and one of the first out athletes, who is in Sochi as an ambassador for the United States. After he makes it to the United States, she helps him get into University in California so that he can stay and seek political asylum.
We have seen the stories of these athletes a few times now but the real power of this film is making the connections to the Russian LGBT people living in the country. As we get to know them personally, we gain insight into their struggles and the danger they face. The problems didn’t disappear after the world stopped looking through the lens of the Olympic Games so this film is important because it gives these people a voice. It lets them know that the world is still listening and the LGBT community is standing with them, as hopeless as it may seem, and that empowers them to keep fighting for a better life.