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Ukraine film with gay hero prompts praise and protest

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Kyiv (Ukraine) (AFP) – In a new comedy film that challenges Ukraine’s lingering homophobia, an activist reassures a bewildered family hosting him, saying: “I’m gay, not a Martian.”


The film, “Lessons in Tolerance”, shows what happens when a family with knee-jerk anti-gay views agrees to take part in a government programme for European integration.

In return for cheaper energy bills, they have to host a gay man for three weeks as he attempts to change their attitudes.

The premise may be absurd, but it reflects real efforts to shift ingrained prejudices against LGBTQ people and tackle discrimination as Ukraine seeks EU membership.

The war has also spurred Ukraine to differentiate itself from ex-Soviet neighbour Russia, which bans LGBTQ “propaganda”.

The country’s state cinema agency helped finance the low-budget film shot during the war, giving it around $81,000.

But in a sign that homophobia remains a live issue, activists from ultra-nationalist groups including Prava Molod (Right Youth) have picketed screenings in the eastern city of Kharkiv and in Kyiv, chanting, “Money for the army not to LGBT propaganda!”

A masked attacker sprayed hostile graffiti including an Orthodox cross and neo-Nazi symbols on the capital’s October cinema when it put up posters for the film.

‘What will the neighbours say?’

“Our film is very relevant and what was painted on the walls of the October cinema is proof of that,” director Arkadiy Nepytaliuk told the audience at the trendy cinema.

Filmed in nine days in a dingy Soviet-style flat, Nepytaliuk’s film has plenty of broad jokes.

But the film also gives a sense of how homophobia is a way to vent anger for people left behind by social and economic change.

In the film, the family dreads the arrival of their gay guest, Vasyl.

“What will our neighbours say, and our relatives?” frets the father, Zenyk, an unemployed driver.

His son Denys, who runs a failing car workshop, warns they are “selling themselves for money”.

But Vasyl takes the family by surprise because he does not look camp.

“Where is the homosexual? Is he coming tomorrow?” asks Zenyk as he answers the door.

But luckily Vasyl has a laminated pass confirming his orientation.

When Denys hisses he would like to put all gay people behind “a concrete wall so no one can get out”, Vasyl simply praises his honesty.

Soon Vasyl is teaching the family to appreciate yoga, massage and sushi, and even shares a kiss with one member.

“Give me Vasyl’s number!” one audience member shouted at a packed screening in Kyiv.


“The film can help. At least it draws attention to this,” Nepytaliuk told AFP.

“A person who feels homophobia will recognise himself and his thoughts and feelings in the film’s characters, and will start thinking about it: ‘Why do I do this? What would I do in this situation?'”

On the night of the showing at the October cinema, Nepytaliuk said police were patrolling inside and outside.

“Lessons in Tolerance” director Arkadiy Nepytaliuk © Sergei SUPINSKY / AFP

The cinema has grounds for concern because protesters set it on fire in 2014 for showing a French film about male transvestites.

Audience members said that protesters had misunderstood the film’s message.

“It’s just about family, about relationships,” said Oleksandra, a young filmmaker from Mariupol.

“Some people have said it’s LGBT propaganda — absolutely not!” said Ylona Boiko, an actress and public speaking teacher.

“For me, it’s about love and loved ones.”

Opinion polls conducted by Ukraine’s National Democratic Institute found that support for legal equality for LGBTQ people increased from 54 percent in August 2022 to 72 percent in November 2023.

Yuriy, a 23-year-old volunteer who gathers donations for the army, said that he believed the film could change people’s minds, after he himself had a change of heart.

Growing up in a small town, he said he was “a radical who hated gays” until he went to university in Kyiv and got to know a fellow student who was gay.

“I realised I really want to come back to my small town and show this film to my parents, who once taught me that gays and lesbians and those who are transgender and bi are bad people,” he said.

“I think that’s wrong and I want as many uninformed people as possible to see this film.”


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