Directed by Peeter Rebane and based on the memoir by Sergey Fetisov, Firebird is a touching love story set in the 1970’s Soviet Union, against the backdrop of the Cold War. Based on a true story during the Cold War, Firebird follows a handsome, soulful young soldier who embarks on a clandestine sexual affair with a charismatic fighter pilot on an Air Force Base in occupied Estonia at the height of 1970’s Communist rule.
Firebird will be screened for the first time in Lithuania during the Baltic Pride 2022 festival in Vilnius on the 5th of June at 5:00 PM at Pasaka Cinema Theatre (Paupio str. 26). Participants of the premiere screening will have an opportunity to meet with Estonian Firebird director Peeter Rebane during a Q&A session, moderated by Lithuanian film director Romas Zabarauskas.
Peeter Rebane gave an exclusive interview to the Baltic Pride 2022 in which he details Firebird’s relevance given current events in the world and changing attitudes towards homophobia in the Baltic States.
Could you tell me a little bit about your background? What brought you into the film industry?
It was a wish to tell stories, to make a difference in that way. I’m not interested in film as a form of entertainment. I look at it as a way to communicate with people. I think that an amazing film really makes a person feel and relate to another person’s experience differently. So, that’s the main reason why I got into filmmaking. I remember high school, mixing black tapes and making little videos. It seemed like a fun thing to do.
What are your inspirations as a film director?
To see if I can make another film. It’s a tough process to finance, produce and make a film. Specially now as cinemas suffer for a couple of years worldwide. I will see whether the next story resonates strongly and whether I will want to put this energy and time into it. My passion is bringing to life stories which I personally deeply care about.
Firebird is based on Sergey Fetisov’s memoir The Story of Roman. What inspired you to turn this story into a film?
Probably having grown up in Estonia. When I was young, I thought that I must repress my identity and sexuality. That experience made me relate to this story. At first, I almost couldn’t believe that such a love story could have existed in the Soviet Union at the time. Our summer cottage was near Haapsalu and I could never imagine that this story really could have happened. I though this might be fiction.
Then we started interviewing different men who served in the Soviet army during the same time. We discovered other similar stories and we realized that life went on and people fell in love and lived the best they could even in those circumstances. It’s quite an inspiring story and it was also eye-opening for me.
The film is set in the Soviet Air Force during the Cold War and tells the true story of forbidden love between a private and a fighter pilot. Why is this story still so relevant today?
I think it’s because it’s a true story from our past. There are still a lot of people in this region, especially Russia, but also in the Baltic States who believe that LGBT people don’t exist or are somehow different or worse and judge them in a negative way.
It’s important to tell such stories, so people could understand better that there is no need for fear or reason to think negatively about LGBT people. The same goes for many forms of discrimination in our societies. Film is a very strong way of helping people to relate to each other more empathically.
Looking on what is going on in the world today, I think it is a stark reminder of how things haven’t really improved at all in modern-day Russia and in some ways even got worse than they were during the Soviet times. The human rights abuses that are taking place in Russia, the current war against Ukraine, clearly demonstrate it. So, this story is even more important to share today.
Both you and your film cast denounced Russian invasion to Ukraine. Firebird’s Oleg Zagorodnii has compared modern-day Russia to the Soviet Union and vowed that Ukrainians will keep fighting for their freedom. As Russia continues to oppress and prosecute LGBT persons, do you think that the Baltic Countries, Ukraine, and other countries from former Eastern Block should strive to ensure equality of LGBT persons?
I think it brings the issue to the limelight. Societies here, including the Baltics and Ukraine, need to decide which way they want to go as a society. Do we value Soviet time beliefs and morals without questioning them or do we believe in freedom of every citizen to choose their way of life?
I see how Estonian society has made a clear choice and it was helped by our ultra-nationalist government that we had for one and a half years. Before this government came into power, 40 percent of Estonians supported same-sex marriage and after one and a half years of having to bear this government 55 percent of Estonians support marriage equality. It made people choose, it made them aware. Before they were thinking that this issue does not concern them, but this verbal abuse and discrimination against LGBT people by certain ministers woke people up and made them to take an active stance.
So, I think the war against Ukraine in the same way will make people question which world of values, which world of consciousness do I want to belong to. In the current Russian cultural space LGBT people are seen as enemies, which is very similar to the Nazi Germany in the late 1930s. It’s an interesting time. Probably every bad thing has also a positive effect and I am confident that the current horrible situation will also change our societies and make them more liberal than they might have been otherwise.
Firebird’s Tom Prior indicated some forms of harassment on social media channels. Do you think these outbursts of homophobia came from Russian trolls? Do you agree that modern day Russia is trying to build its identity on homophobia?
Oh, clearly. It’s very clear when the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church and the President of Russia use horrible statements against LGBT community. It’s a classic example of politicians diverting attention from what really matters, like war, corruption, stealing, health care, education to “here’s somebody to hate”. They do it instead of talking about the real problems that are relevant to the society.
The harassment on social media channels of Firebird was also clearly state-sponsored approach. We have proof which Telegram channel was used to publish a call for action asking people to come and harass our film crew. So, it was not just random people, it was all coordinated. These people also received payments for spreading hate speech. Sadly, it’s a big propaganda machine. I can only feel sorry for them for being misinformed.
Firebird will be screened for the first time in Lithuania during the Baltic Pride 2022 festival in Vilnius. What message would you like to send to Lithuanian LGBT community?
Most importantly, I would like to wish for more understanding rather than fighting. There is no point to fight with religious beliefs, for example. If somebody believes blindly, fighting and saying they are wrong will not change anything. But personal experience and kindness will.
Engage your community, engage your mothers, your families. I can use my personal example: if I speak about my personal experience, it’s easy to judge, but if your mother or close relative speaks up that changes people’s opinions the fastest. Personal experience, understanding that we are all human is important. It’s only through changing others’ perception we can change the society. It takes effort, but in this way the change is permanent.
In the UK where I live there is no discussion on LGBT equality for many years. The Conservative Government instituted the same-sex marriage, and no party would even debate this issue. In England to discuss whether marriage equality should be allowed would be as surreal or bizarre as to discuss whether women are allowed to vote. It’s given that everyone has a freedom to choose with whom they want to form a family. So, I really hope that this is also possible in Lithuania and the Baltic States.
Firebird is your feature directorial debut. What are your creative plans?
Now I am planning to take a summer vacation. It’s been so tough for the last couple of years. Not because of the pandemic, more because of challenges and changes in the way that films are distributed and seen in the world. So, my only wish now is to enjoy life and to not start immediately working on another project.
After I take my break, we will see which stories we will choose to start working on. We have two or three interesting projects in mind. But honestly, I don’t know which one and when I will start working on. I think it’s important to enjoy the process and not get lost in achieving and doing something all the time.
The screening of Firebird under the framework of the Baltic Pride 2022 is sponsored by the Estonian Embassy in Vilnius.