Side By Side

From November 21st to November 28th we’ll be posting writing from Ed Wolf documenting his trip to the Side-By-Side LGBT Film Festival in St. Petersburg. Catch up with Part OnePart Two, Part Three.   

Part Four: I See You

Saturday November 23rd 

I hear someone laughing outside my hotel room and suddenly I’m wide awake. It’s 7 am and I’ve been able to sleep for six hours. I go downstairs to eat breakfast. Most notable are two hot porridges: one made of semolina, the other, pieces of bread. Excellent comfort food, as I am still worrying about my lost luggage and what to do if it doesn’t arrive. When I return to my room I put everything I have on the bed:

1. Cargo pants with coffee stains on them already. Dammit!

2. A watch, two pairs of glasses, two pens, sunglasses, a notebook and some Ambien.

3. A camera, a pill box with Tums, ibuprofen and Tylenol and a little book called Point It. It’s full of little photos of things—like a taxi or a chicken—that you can point to if you can’t speak Russian.

4. My passport, a book of Sudoku puzzles, a map of St. Petersburg, and my wallet.

5. A long sleeve t-shirt and a heavy cotton shirt. Both orange, a color I never wear as it makes me look jaundiced.

6. A raincoat, my laptop (now without power), two packages of tissue, and some Tic-Tacs.

7. My shoes and socks, not pictured.

I’m restless and need to get outside. The hotel’s on a very busy street and the sidewalk is full of Saturday morning errand doers. I see the entrance to a park and go through it. The day is cold, gray, and wet. The brochure in my room proudly announces that St. Petersburg has sixty-two sunny days per year, but today is clearly not one of them. With all the different feelings and thoughts I’ve had about coming here, it’s powerful to have my feet on the earth and be moving.

There are empty abandoned buildings in this area, stark and beautiful in their own way. Gigantic ravens circle overhead and one is screeching at me from atop a barbwire fence. He’s staring at me. My lost luggage, my anticipation of what will happen today, the grayness of everything feels a bit sinister, and so I raise my arms and swoosh the bird away. When I travelled to Kiev a year ago to attend the Molodist Film Festival, I was in-between knee replacements. My right knee had been replaced; my left would be done when I returned from Ukraine. I was limping then, unsure on the street, always in pain. This morning I realize that now, if I had to, I could run.

I head back to the hotel; still no sign of my luggage. I lay down and fall back to sleep until the phone rings. It’s Tanya, one of the festival organizers, and she says that a volunteer will come and bring me to the theatre where the screenings of “Lesbiana” and “Facing Mirrors” will play today.

The volunteer arrives promptly at four and we walk for two minutes before turning down an alley and into a courtyard. I passed this building earlier today and never would have known that the theatre was inside. There are a series of dark stairways and hallways that  lead into a large multipurpose art space that has, for today, been turned into a screening room. Out of the group of people standing around me emerge Manny and Tanya, two of the festival organizers. I recognize them from their pictures on the Festival website. I’m so happy to finally meet them that I quickly move forward with arms open—a great big gay man from San Francisco, dressed in orange, trying to hug them. They are very kind to accept my hug, but I’m aware I need to cut my enthusiasm back some and begin, next time, with a handshake. 

I’m so happy to finally be here and quickly sit down before the film begins. Manny finds me, says there’s a volunteer who would go with me to have a cup of coffee. This is how I meet Olga. Olga is a university student here in St. Petersburg and helped do the subtitles for several of the films, including “We Were Here.” Our coffee turns into a meal (the best borscht I’ve ever eaten) and a three-hour conversation about homophobia, the repression of human rights, feminism, the coming Olympics and, underneath it all, a sense of hopelessness about the situation for LGBT people here in Russia. The authorities are strong and forceful in their stance that queer people are unnatural, mentally ill, undeserving of recognition. The conversation gets very sad at times and for a moment, in the middle of this very crowded café, she begins to weep. I offer her a napkin and then take one myself, joining in her tears. Why, she asks, over and over, why can’t people see that this is all about letting people love who they want to love?

The previous film must have ended because the café is now filling up with young women, some who become aware of Olga and I sitting and crying together. I nod to them, smile, and let them know we’re fine. I tell Olga about the early days of the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco and how many times we felt despair over what to do for our community. Slowly, slowly, things got better for us, but it took work, commitment and many dark nights when it seemed terribly hopeless. “In my experience, change does come,” I say, “but it comes slowly.” I look into her eyes and she returns the gaze. “I see you,” I say. “I see you and the good work that you are doing here.” We both get quiet. We ask for the bill. We go back upstairs to the theatre. Before we part, I tell her how much our meal meant to me. “I’m here now,” I say. “You’ve helped me get here.” 

The room is dark, the short films have started. I find a seat and barely fifteen minutes pass before the lights suddenly come back on and an announcement is made. There’s been another bomb scare. We all leave the theatre, working our way down the stairwells while Russian police and their dogs come up through the dark corridors. Once out on the street, we stand for a few minutes before being told that the search is going to take several hours. Since I am so close to my hotel, I excuse myself. It’s been such a big day already and I’m filled with admiration for these people. And apprehension, too. What’s going to happen to them? What can I possibly do to help?

When I let myself into my room, I see my luggage, returned to me.