Utah Film Center Damn These Heels 2021: Stories from the former Soviet Union, Republic of Georgia highlight oppression queer citizens have faced and continue to do so

The oppression that queer citizens faced in the former Soviet Union and continue to do so in the independent republics today drives the heart of two films screening in the Utah Film’s Center’s 18th annual Damn These Heels Queer Film Festival. The first, set in the final days of the Soviet Union as perestroika took hold, is a feature narrative with a clever take on the autobiographical genre. The second is an award-winning documentary with a case study defining how transgender citizens are denied their rights along with access to jobs and health care in the Republic of Georgia.

Both films will be available for streaming during the festival, which runs through July 18.  The Utah Review screened both of the films in advance of the festival for the following reviews:

Potato Dreams of America

An inventive dark comedy, Potato Dreams of America is an outstanding coming-of-age story based on the real-life experiences of its director Wes Hurley, a Russian immigrant whose boyhood days coincided with the period of perestroika and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. 

Potato Dreams of America, directed by Wes Hurley.

There are many critical details in the film that come directly from Hurley’s life. Viewers see Potato first as a boy who came from Vladivostok and yearns for American culture through its films and slowly realizes that he is gay (played by Hersh Powers). Thanks to an opportunity to capture a pirate broadcast of American television, the young Hurley saw popular American films from the 1980s including Tootsie, Labyrinth and Robocop. After a string of failed romances, his mother Lena (played by Sera Barbieri) becomes a mail-order bride and the two emigrate to the U.S. Later in the film, Potato is a teen (played by Tyler Babcock) who has accepted his sexual identity and relishes the experiences of living in the U.S. In the Soviet Union, his mother was forced to falsify medical reports for prisoners who died in detention after being beaten. To refuse the orders, his mother could have been murdered under unverifiable circumstances.

Hurley brings an intriguing aesthetic to the film, offering a representation of the experiences of his formative years that is far more colorful, campy and lighter than they were in his real life. But, all of the essential details are still there, especially as the comedic aspects nevertheless reflect genuine painful memories of the most vulnerable years of his upbringing. One is left with the feeling that Hurley has made peace with his past and processed the most difficult moments by translating them confidently into his creative capacities and the satisfaction of living in Seattle where he does not have to fear for his life as a queer citizen. 

Prior to making this recent film, Hurley made a documentary short about his childhood experiences on a $2,000 budget. That film, Little Potato, premiered at SXSW in 2017, where Hurley won the award for the best short documentary film. 

The feature-length film represents creative efforts that began nearly a decade ago. In a 2013 essay published at Huffington Post, Hurley recalls the difficult experiences of his childhood, where the word “pedik” was used to describe gays, a pejorative equivalent of “faggot” that also denoted pedophilia. “I quickly figured out that being a pedik was absolutely the worst thing in the world,” he wrote. “I heard both my peers and adults say that pediks are viler than serial killers and that anyone admitting to be one deserves to die a terrible death. At school and around my friends, ‘pedik’ was used in every conversation to demean or dehumanize anyone you didn’t like. Yet with all the references to pediks, I also felt like they didn’t really exist. I didn’t know of a single one.” Early in the film, there is a scene that reflects Hurley’s memory of this time, rendered and framed as a classic example of dark comedy. 

Comparing his realization that he was gay was like receiving a diagnosis that he was about to die from a grave disease, Hurley, again from his 2013 essay, wrote, “I obsessed about concealing my secret. But having no idea what being gay looked like, I was completely lost. I became so anxious and self-conscious that at times I would forget how to walk. Every step I took seemed like a huge undertaking. Does this step make me look pedik? Will this word sound pedik-like? Better sit still and keep my mouth shut. I had a couple of close friends who were like brothers to me growing up, yet as they took interest in girls, I stopped hanging out with them. I couldn’t let them figure out that girls were not on my mind.” Viewers will pick up on these emotional currents as they are situated in Hurley’s unique idealized treatment in the film. In the end, Hurley is emphatic in genuinely appreciating how lucky he considers living in the U.S. as a gay man, as compared to his native land where he notes that fear of gays remains as dangerously potent as it did during his younger years living in Vladivostok. In sum, Potato Dreams of America is a quirky well-made gem about the experiences of a gay immigrant.

Instructions for Survival

Even as many countries have begun to decriminalize LGBTQ identities and have accepted at least theoretically that individuals are entitled to basic rights as citizens, the practice deviates significantly from the legal theoretical premises of such decisions. Such is the case in the Republic of Georgia, once a satellite of the former Soviet Union. 

But, as Alexander, a transgender man, realizes, it has become nearly impossible for him to live his life freely and openly. He cannot change the identity of his gender on formal citizen documents, including his passport, because he has not satisfied the Georgian Republic’s requirements for surgical procedures that would allow him to make such changes. Without a current ID or passport, he cannot marry Mari, the woman he loves, nor secure steady employment or gain access to medicine and other health care needs. Alexander and Mari appear to have no option but to leave their homeland.

Instructions for Survival, directed by Yana Ugrekhelidze.

Their story propels the award-winning documentary film Instructions for Survival, directed by Yana Ugrekhelidze. Earning the Teddy Jury Award and the Compass-Perspektive Award at this year’s Berlinale, the film leverages a significant impact out of its conventional documentary structure. Ugrekhelidze undoubtedly gained the trust of the couple to get as close to them as possible, giving viewers a rare substantial glimpse into their lives in Georgia and the obstacles they attempt to navigate. 

The facts of their existence and predicament certainly need no additional dramatization and Ugrekhelidze smartly processes this effectively in the film. Alexander has the unconditional love of his mother but the film also presents the contrast in how the government seemingly advocates for protecting family values while ensuring that those values cannot condone that Alexander is entitled to the rights to thrive similarly as fellow Georgians. Eventually, Alex and his partner, Mari, who becomes a surrogate mother so they can have the financial means to seek asylum in the country, make the consequential decision. Even in the plain spoken candor of the film in general, there are emotional moments that break through in the film. One such instance is when Mari has developed an emotional bond with the unborn child.

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