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Screening ‘Sodom’

A Eurasianet partner post from Coda

On May 27, 2015, Russ­ian celebrity jour­nal­ist and film di­rec­tor Arkady Ma­mon­tov stood in a Moscow stu­dio of the state-owned TV chan­nel Rossiya 1 (Rus­sia One) to dis­cuss his lat­est doc­u­men­tary with a group of ex­perts and an au­di­ence of about 70 peo­ple. Along with tens of mil­lions of Rus­sians who reg­u­larly tune into one of the chan­nel’s most pop­u­lar pro­grams, they had just watched the pre­miere of Ma­mon­tov’s 50-minute film “Sodom,” which equates ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity with pe­dophilia and claims that both were planned by the West­ern po­lit­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment.

It was dif­fi­cult to imag­ine that Ma­mon­tov could top the mind-bog­gling claims made in his film, and yet when he was asked to speak, he did. “Ninety per­cent of peo­ple in Wash­ing­ton are sodomites,” he an­nounced, his last words swal­lowed by ap­plause.

A lively dis­cus­sion fol­lowed. Us­ing the word “sodomite,” in­stead of “gay” or “ho­mo­sex­ual,” most of the 11 ex­perts echoed the views of Ma­mon­tov’s state-funded film. When the hosts said, “Let’s turn to­wards sci­ence,” psy­chol­o­gist Maria Kisileva weighed in. “These peo­ple have a nar­cis­sis­tic dis­or­der,” she said. Ac­cord­ing to Kisileva, the key prob­lem fac­ing gays was­n’t alien­ation, but rather, “lone­li­ness, de­pres­sion, the lack of mean­ing in life.”

With her hair pulled back in a slick pony­tail, Kisileva rat­tled through stud­ies and sta­tis­tics and an­nounced that if ac­cep­tance of ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity car­ried on, then soon “in­cest will be nor­mal.” Jour­nal­ist and broad­caster An­drey Ka­raulov agreed. “Gays hate kids,” he said, “and [they] are bring­ing about an apoc­a­lypse.”

When Boris Nadezhdin, a for­mer Russ­ian Duma deputy, sug­gested that ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity was bi­o­log­i­cal, an au­di­ence mem­ber cried out, “that’s a lie!” reign­ing in the rogue guest.

I watched “Sodom,” along with dozens of hours of Russ­ian tele­vi­sion, to try and un­der­stand the nar­ra­tive on ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity be­ing dis­sem­i­nated across the coun­try. Ma­jor tele­vi­sion net­works, all of which are ei­ther state-owned or firmly un­der the in­flu­ence of the state, spread a nar­ra­tive that goes be­yond ho­mo­pho­bia into a sur­real, par­al­lel uni­verse of logic. It is a world that has sprung up rel­a­tively re­cently.

Four years ago, the idea that ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity was linked to pe­dophilia was some­thing that only cropped up in news cov­er­age of the hand­ful of politi­cians who es­poused that view. Now, across the full spec­trum of Russ­ian me­dia, that the­ory is pre­sented as sci­en­tific fact.

TV hosts across the net­works reg­u­larly dis­cuss ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity as a prob­lem that needs to be solved. Three quar­ters of Rus­sians now con­sider ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity a psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­or­der, and the­o­ries for “treat­ment” are pop­u­lar on-air con­ver­sa­tion starters.

Ma­mon­tov, the cre­ator of “Sodom,” is one of the most promi­nent fig­ures in this world. His name means “mam­moth” in Russ­ian, though with his short, thick neck, he looks more like a bull­dog. His weekly pro­gram “Spe­cial Cor­re­spon­dent” airs on the chan­nel’s prime­time evening slot – just when mil­lions of Rus­sians are sit­ting down to eat din­ner.

Nightly tele­vi­sion has been a part of the Russ­ian din­ner ex­pe­ri­ence since the days of the So­viet Union. Fam­ily ar­gu­ments are over­pow­ered by the sound of a small kitchen tele­vi­sion set. Along with their cab­bage salad, Rus­sians are now di­gest­ing the idea that ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity is a virus planted by the West in or­der to kill tra­di­tional fam­ily val­ues.

Dur­ing one scene in “Sodom,” two gay fa­thers com­fort a scream­ing child seated in a toy car at San Fran­cisco Pride, the an­nual LGBT pa­rade and fes­ti­val. As the cam­era moves in, a voiceover in­tones: “chil­dren from same-sex cou­ples don’t look happy. The child’s soul feels that every­thing hap­pen­ing around is dis­gust­ing to na­ture.”

In an­other scene, a Russ­ian jour­nal­ist be­hind the cam­era asks a bus dri­ver shut­tling peo­ple to Pride, “what do you think God thinks when he sees all this?” The dri­ver does­n’t even seem to un­der­stand the ques­tion through the re­porter’s thick v’s and rolled r’s, but his re­sponse fits per­fectly into the film’s nar­ra­tive: “Who’s that? I don’t know who that is…” Af­ter the film was screened, the panel of ex­perts pointed to this mo­ment as proof that west­ern so­ci­ety had aban­doned moral­ity when it em­braced gay rights.

Cen­tral to Ma­mon­tov’s film is the idea that ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity is a West­ern in­ven­tion. He pref­aces “Sodom” by say­ing that the film was “heavy and dan­ger­ous work.” In one scene, look­ing straight into cam­era, he warns that the film dis­proves “all these fairy­tales about sodomites be­ing these peo­ple who are per­se­cuted, who are afraid.”

Though there is no ex­plicit call to ac­tion, the film is clearly meant to gal­va­nize. To­wards the end, al­ter­nat­ing scenes from gay pride pa­rades in Amer­ica are set to a men­ac­ing sound­track that could be lifted from the shower scene in Al­fred Hitch­cock’s “Psy­cho.” A voiceover in­forms the viewer that, “the Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment no longer hides the idea of spread­ing ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity around the planet.”

Panel guest Elena Yam­pol­skaya, ed­i­tor-in-chief of the small, con­ser­v­a­tive daily news­pa­per Cul­ture, which pub­licly sup­ported the anti gay-pro­pa­ganda law, re­in­forces the view dur­ing the post-film dis­cus­sion. “Ho­mo­sex­ual pro­pa­ganda is a prod­uct for ex­port, pro­duced by the U.S. for the ‘old world,’ for Rus­sia and for our for­mer im­pe­r­ial lands,” she told the au­di­ence.

No one in the stu­dio chal­lenged her views. Even­tu­ally, an­other panel guest called for the dis­cus­sion to end en­tirely. At the end of the day, the man said, it’s just “more PR for the gays.”

Katerina Patin is a Coda Story reporter and researcher.

A Eurasianet partner post from Coda

Screening ‘Sodom’

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