‘Firebird’ Is the Russian Military Love Story Vladimir Putin Doesn’t Want You to See
Firebird, a middlebrow romance set on a Soviet Air Force base in 1977, is a beautifully mounted gay love story between Sergey Serebrennikov (Tom Prior), a young soldier towards the tail end of his conscripted service with aspirations to become an actor after military life, and Roman Matvejev (Oleg Zagoradinii), a strapping fighter pilot with ambitions to rise up the ranks. Needless to say, Vladimir Putin is not a fan of the film since, as we’ve all been told, there is no such thing as homosexuality in Russia.
Based on Sergey Fetisov’s memoir The Story of Roman, and adapted by director Peeter Rebane with Prior, Firebird doesn’t soft-pedal the homophobia emboldened by Russia’s recent “gay propaganda” law, or the ongoing witch hunt of LGBTQ service people across generations and cultures, though Rebane and his actor/co-screenwriter make sure to anchor the love story with love, not politics.
“We had very little requests from Sergey about what we could do with the story,” Prior has said of meeting with Fetisov in Russia during Firebird‘s pre-production stage. “But he did make one specific request, which was: make the story about love, not politics. We knew Firebird would be seen in the eyes of politics, but we never wanted to make a political statement with it. It was more about telling this amazing story about two people who just really care for each other.”
Prior, as co-screenwriter and lead actor, is invested in his performance, though sharp enough to not overplay the dramatic ups and downs of a young gay man not merely negotiating the difficulties of embracing their sexuality, but the continuous surveillance of the KGB and the whispers of homophobic superiors. He’s in a constant state of discovery —– first love, first sex, first heartbreak — and the experiences are fresh, on the surface. He feels exquisitely; you can see the blush of new love in furtive glances, desire in bloom the first time Roman caresses him, the heightened pleasure of sex and fear. And the Ukrainian actor Oleg Zagorodnii is one complicated side of beef — both a sex object for the pining Sergey and the embodiment of internal conflict who rejects the notion of romance for the safety of heteronormative conformity. But Roman, to quote another well-known example of thwarted gay love, just can’t quit Sergey, and maneuvers to leave his wife and child for a few months to set up shop in Moscow near the dramatic academy where his erstwhile lover is studying.
Firebird is a middle-of-the-road film — a big, prestige picture done on an indie budget with an inordinate amount of sensitivity. For Western audiences, it may seem fusty, a throwback to an older style of filmmaking. In Russia, that hotbed of progressive thinking, the film played to an empty house at their international film festival and was protested by anti-LGBTQ negative press.
“It’s an acknowledgment of the reality of where things still stand there,” Prior has said, addressing Russian hostility towards the film. “There’s a whole body of people who don’t believe that LGBT people exist in Russia, which is kind of extraordinary and delusional. But yeah, we’ve been attacked several times via our social media channels with all kinds of intricate ways of how our creative team are going to die and things like that. It’s honestly horrendous, but it’s interesting to have pointed out that it’s a true story.”