Rocketman brings to the big screen the technicolour life of the extraordinary icon, Elton John. The “fantastical tale” has engaged critics. They have commended not only the acting and directing, but also the raw honesty of the film in portraying the flamboyant, complex, and, at times, dark life of John.
However, the Russian audience has only been exposed to a censored version of his story, as several “explicit” scenes failed to make it to their screens. In keeping with the 2013 anti-propaganda law, certain parts were seen to be promoting “non-traditional sexual relations”. Essentially, meaning that the parts of the film that showed gay relations were deemed inappropriate for public viewing.
Film critics such as Anton Dolin and Misha Kozyrev, who saw the production in Russia wrote how any scene containing sexual relations of any kind between men had been cut. Rather heartbreakingly, a tribute to his husband, David, and children in the end credits had also been scrapped. When you watch the film, you are exposed to the struggle John underwent to find validity and love, and his exposure to false forms of it along the way. It is a journey the audience watch reach a jubilant conclusion in this tribute as the caption explains how he found 'real' love. An ending the Russian audience has been prevented from appreciating.
The editing of the film outraged the production team, but most of all, and unsurprisingly, Elton John himself. Upon hearing the news, he took to Twitter to express how he “rejected the decision in the strongest possible terms”. He even declared that he would be happy to meet with President Putin to discuss the vital importance of equal rights for the LGBTQ community. Although, it seems unlikely Putin would take John up on this offer.
The adaptation of the film for the Russian market is disappointing to say the least, still I cannot help but ask if this truly shocks us? Technically, it is legal to be gay in Russia. Unfortunately, in this case the equality the law provides in theory and reality are very different. The worst kept secret in global politics is how hard it is to be gay in Russia. By merely informing you friend, colleague, or even a total stranger of your sexual orientation you are potentially putting yourself at risk, if it is incoherent with what the government deems proper. It is a country where equality is offered hidden in the shadows, but not out in the streets.
Two men, Pavel Stotsko and Yevgeny Voitsekhovsky, thought they had discovered a loophole in this domestic policy. Instead, their innovative thinking promptly turned their life into a nightmare. Aware of the Russian stance on same sex marriage, the couple travelled to Denmark to wed. While Russian policy makes to clear that gay marriage is illegal, the authorities are obligated to recognise marriages that “had been registered abroad, even those between same sex couples”. The pair even had their passports stamped with a marriage certificate, as in compliance with domestic law, by an unsuspecting clerk when they reentered the country.
However, this dream was sort lived. As news spread of their success they became the targets of cruel abuse. Far right MP, Vitaly Milonov, publicly expressed how the pair were dangerous and should be checked for diseases. Eventually, they were forced to hand over their international passports and were trapped in their flat while their electricity was cut off. Unsurprisingly, with the help of their community, the couple then fled the country.
Reading this account felt like a immersing myself into a piece of fiction. Sadly, this is the fearful reality for the LGBTQ community in Russia.
This case is not in isolation. Across the world, films that feature gay content are being edited and censored. The hugely successful Bohemian Rhapsody was accused of “straight-washing” for the film to appeal more easily to international markets. This year Eurovision even came under fire for the same issue, as it was revealed that Chinese broadcasters had edited the show for their audience.
By definition, censoring implies that the content is obscene, politically unacceptable and a threat to national security. By association, this sent a message to the Russian audience that gay relations are to be viewed in this way. To watch a censored account of the life of Elton John is a vast dishonour to the internal battle the icon undertook in order to entertain the world. His life should not to be explained in black and white terms, but instead in glorious and outrageous technicolor. It is a tale to be told correctly and in its entirety or not at all.
This censorship should be recognised as a red flag. The words 'complex' and 'delicate' are often tossed around to describe Russian politics, both domestic and international. This is highly accurate. However, in acting passively, are we just looking the other way? It has become clear that we are scared to strongly speak out against Russia’s domestic policy, in fear of the international consequences. This position is not without merit. Yet, history has shown us we enter concerning territory when following this path.
We need to ask ourselves what is worth more: fully realised equality for the LGBTQ community or diplomatic relations with Russia that often leaves us walking on eggshells? If it is the latter then we must be aware of and accept what the price of these relations are.