Grey Violet – Odd One Out: Interview with director Reetta Aalto

Grey Violent: Odd One Out

Directed by Reetta Aalto / Produced by Liisa Juntunen for Napafilms / Country: Finland Language: Russian, English, Finnish

DocPoint Helsinki Documentary Film Festival (National Premiere) / Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival (International Premiere)

On the 7th of September 2008, to protest homophobic and racist actions by Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, Russian protest group Voina staged a mock hanging of two homosexual men and three Central Asian guest workers in a department store in Moscow. One of the men who was hanged was Grey Violet, a mathematician by profession and an activist by heart. In ultra-conservative Russia, where taking part in gay pride or a protest in favour of Pussy Riot is enough to get beaten, Grey Violet (who prefers the pronoun ‘ze’) became the victim of police persecution and far-right fundamentalism and was even singled out by Putin himself. After being invited to a mathematical conference in Finland, ze decides not to return home. The documentary Grey Violet – Odd One Out follows Grey Violet’s asylum process and zir mother, Svetlana, who throughout all of this is left behind in Moscow, worrying about her son’s future. Throughout the years she has tried to accept her eccentric and radical son, and now they are apart they have to find a way to cope with the situation that has been forced upon them. Grey Violet – The Odd One Out offers a unique perspective on dissidence and queerness in the face of authoritarianism, and is a moving documentary on Grey Violet’s desire to both fit in and single out the issues happening in zir own country.

Reetta Aalto

Why did you decide to make a documentary about Grey Violet?

I have a personal history with Russia. I went there to study there in my twenties and lived in St. Petersburg for over four years. Since then, I have been closely following what’s happening in Russia. Of course, the news about the oppressing laws, the so-called ‘gay propaganda’ law, and others impacted me. I felt sick to my stomach and like many other documentarists wanted to do something; so I was looking for a unique angle to grasp on this subject matter. Meanwhile, I was also writing a fictional screenplay, where one of the characters was a Russian army deserter and applying for asylum in Finland. For research purposes, I asked my friend who does voluntary work in these asylum seekers’ reception centres if he knew anyone like this, and in a week he called me and said, that ‘it’s not really what you ordered’ but he had met an interesting person who was a mathematician from Moscow, a member of the radical art group Voina and transgender. ‘It’s the hanged gay from that performance’, he said, ‘would you like to meet?’ I said that I wanted to make a documentary film about this person. I knew Voina and I had seen the hanging performance video on YouTube. I didn’t know anything else about Grey Violet, but these few facts alone got me intrigued.

What surprised you the most about making this documentary?

I was blown away by Grey Violet’s character. I soon learned that Grey Violet was genderqueer, not a he or a she, but wanted to be addressed by the gender neutral pronoun ze. Ze was very radical in zir thinking, questioning not just gender, but all these categories like nationality, ethnicity and religion. It seemed as if ze did not – as people normally tend to do – seek for approval or acceptance, but free-willingly positioned zirself outside of all possible boxes. When it comes to people, ze does not have much prejudices. Ze treats everyone as equal to zirself. I really appreciate zir for that. Ze makes me look at the world differently and never stop questioning, I’m forever grateful to zir for that.

What was Grey Violet’s opinion on the documentary?

At the premiere in Helsinki ze said right after seeing the film, that ze has to think about it a bit more before ze can form an opinion. Later at the party, ze said to me that ‘really, it wasn’t bad’. I think for zir these events in the film seem like they happened ages ago. Zir life, of course, has moved on from that.

How did your opinion of gay persecution in Russia change over the making of this documentary?

I guess what really struck me was the complexity of the whole thing. That it’s not just the discriminating laws or some pro-governmental groups that oppress the LGBT community, there are also all these different groupings, the far-right and ultra-orthodox Christian groups, the so-called leftist homophobes, football hooligans and so forth. And some of these groups are even anti-Putin or they may be against each other, but what combines them all is homo-, trans- and overall xenophobia. And in the current climate, their violent outcomes are welcomed or at least quietly accepted by the police and the bulk of Russian people.

It’s been in the news recently that Chechen authorities are arresting and killing gay people. Do you feel your documentary highlights similar issues we are seeing in the news?

Certainly, but alongside with Russia’s LGBT rights issues, I think the film reflects our contemporary world in general, this world of ‘Brexits’ and ‘Drumpfs’, where populists, neoconservative ideologies and far-right movements are rising all over Europe and the US. Three years ago when we started making this film, we were shooting at an anti-fascist demonstration in Helsinki. I remember being almost a little amused, when I saw this bunch of punks screaming ‘no to fascism, no to Nazis’. What Nazis? I didn’t consider ‘the Nazis’ to be any kind of real threat, I really thought that they were just some random pathetic group of young men from the countryside who couldn’t get laid and therefore bullied others. This was in 2014. Now, last December on Finland’s Independence Day, thousands of Neo-Nazis gathered to demonstrate in Helsinki. There have also been several violent attacks against the asylum seekers and last year even a politically motivated killing in front of a central railway station in the middle of the day. Now we all know who those Nazis are. We even have them in our government! This development has been really fast. What I’m trying to say is that as ironic as it may sound, Russia has been in some sort of an avant-garde in this. What happened there already years ago is now happening here. We can see similar patterns. We really need to look at, not only Russia, but ourselves, too, and make sure that those principles that protect us all from fascist practices are not being shifted without us even noticing. It’s what we need to do from day in day out, over and over and yet over again.

Emma Vestrheim

Emma Vestrheim is the editor-in-chief of Cinema Scandinavia. Originally from Australia, she is now based in Bergen, Norway, and attends major Nordic film festivals to conduct interviews and review new films.