Wednesday, 27 May 2015

The 25th Inside Out Toronto LGBT Film Festival 2015 - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Stirring Noam Gonick Documentary on the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics - TO RUSSIA WITH LOVE ****

Let Gorgeous Johnny Weir guide you through the highs, lows, hatred, love, heartache and triumphs of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics in Totalitarian Russia.

To Russia With Love (2015)
Dir. Noam Gonick

Review By Greg Klymkiw

To Russia With Love (recently honoured as a nominee in the prestigious GLAAD Media Awards in New York) is a gripping feature documentary which casts an indelible eye upon both LGBT participation in sports and the repressive dictatorship of Vladimir Putin. In fact, it's not surprising at all that filmmaker Noam Gonick would be the one to fashion of one of the best, if not, frankly, the best of all documentaries dealing with human rights issues affecting the LGBT community in Russia during the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. First and foremost, Gonick is one of the more stellar leading lights of the Prairie-Post-Modernist Wave of cinema in Winnipeg; one that includes the likes of John Paizs, Guy Maddin, Deco Dawson and Matthew Rankin.

He brings his unique outsider perspective to anything he puts his mitts on; especially such seminal (as it were) works as 1919 (the brilliant re-imagining of the famed Winnipeg General Strike with a fantasia upon the late-lamented Wong's Steam Bath and Bill Sciak's legendary barber shop in Winnipeg's Chinatown), his intensely diverse feature films Hey Happy! and Stryker, plus his astonishing post-modern documentary Hirsch on the late, great pioneer of regional theatre as well as the saviour of the Stratford Theatre Festival and CBC Drama.

What's thrilling about Gonick's helmsmanship in this new film is just how skilfully he juggles several vital narrative threads revolving around Sochi and how he deftly creates several sub-arcs within the overall arc of the film's compelling narrative (and vitally important political, social and cultural issues). This is not mere "journalism" documentary, but genuine storytelling with a voice (one which he shares so much with his more "out-there" works as well as his more "straight"-up television work and his brilliant doc on Guy Maddin, Waiting For Twilight).

The film follows several Canadian LGBT athletes during the buildup, then participation and finally, the aftermath of the 2014 Sochi Olympics. He weaves these stories (which include insights into the openness and acceptance of the athletes' families) with three central narratives.

RUSSIA's LGBT community under ATTACK!
Perhaps the central non-fiction tale involves the stunningly beautiful and handsome former Olympic skater Johnny Weir who will be covering the proceedings for broadcast television. Weir in not only charming, funny and erudite, but he's delectably flamboyant and a lifelong Russophile (which makes the country's "legal" castigation of the LGBT community especially painful for him).

Weir uses his position as a behind-the-scenes activist and spokesperson whilst brilliantly adhering to the Olympic Committee's moronic demands that all Sochi participants (athletes, broadcasters, administrators, etc.) maintain complete silence about "political" issues. Christ, since when have the Olympics not been political (as Gonick superbly touches upon)?

Weir's narrative melds with two important story strands; one involving an all-LGBT sporting competition to occur in Sochi just after the Olympics and the other, perhaps the most moving of all the stories, Vladislav Slavskiya, a teenage gay man who lives in Sochi and who has experienced the most horrendous verbal, physical and sexual abuse at the hands of homophobic students and teachers in his high school and longs for an opportunity to find a place in the world where he can be proud and accepted for whom and what he is. (There's even an unbelievably moving development which occurs during his plight with the famously-out Billie Jean King.)

Overall, Gonick wrenches us this way and that, as all great filmmakers should. He makes superb use of the many ups, downs, happiness and melancholy that the entire Sochi experience is infused with to deliver a film that's entertaining, informative and finally, must-see viewing for all audiences, gay or straight, all over the free (and not-so-free) world.


To Russia With Love is playing at the Inside Out 2015 Toronto LGBT Film Festival. For further info, please visit the festival's website by clicking HERE.

Full Disclosure: During the early 90s in Winnipeg, my film production office shared the same floor as the artist apartment in the old Plug-Inn Gallery space above U.N. Luggage. Noam Gonick lived there for a time and we'd often catch occasional (mostly attired) glimpses of each other. I only shared Noam's bed when I was visiting as it was the most comfortable place to sit. I also never shared a bubble bath with him as filmmaker Deco Dawson (above left) clearly did. Noam has, however, fed me brisket, for which I am eternally grateful.