On December 1-4, the annual queer film festival, Queer Voices, was held in the capital of Moldova, Chisinau, for the fifth time, which was attended by queer representatives. The film festival (if one can even call this multi-faceted festival just that) mainly focuses on documentary films, and brings forth the voices of LGBTQ+ people living in Moldova and around the world. Most importantly, the festival gives local community members the inspiration and experience to become their own storytellers.
“Cinema can inspire people. The screen has this unique power to take one on a journey that teaches us many truths. It allows us to observe our thoughts reflected in the experience of others. Therefore, I believe that cinema has power, including in terms of improving queer rights,” says Maxim Cirlan, a Moldovan-Greek director, screenwriter and activist who launched the first and only Moldovan queer festival, Queer Voices, 5 years ago with the support of a Swedish institute.
In this article I will try to convey the ideas that became an obsession after attending (accidently) an amazing queer film festival in a snowy December Chisinau. We all have a story worth telling, and no one can do it better than us. I will also tell you about the idea of the festival and its program- that I will remember for years to come.
“Chisinau needs a queer film festival, why not?!”
“The idea of a queer film festival started with the organization of Moldox, a documentary film festival aimed at social change. As part of the festival, we decided to screen an LGBTQ film in my small hometown in southern Moldova, which was not easy. We didn’t know how people would react, but it was important to me because I’m gay myself and I wanted to draw people’s attention to LGBTQI issues. Nevertheless, I had some apprehensions. We screened the short film and the conservative public accepted it well, moreover, the response was excellent — no one left the hall, no one protested. So we thought, why don’t we have a full queer film festival in Chisinau? “Why not?!”, says Maxim.
According to him, in the first year of the festival, he did not expect to see new, unfamiliar faces, nor to have a large audience. But the first festival was attended by many people who had not actively participated in LGBTQ rights protection events prior to the festival.
“They wanted to see the films, they wanted to support the community and they were ready to get involved. Since then, the festival has been growing and getting stronger.”
The festival, which takes place every year during the winter, in a frozen, unrenovated historical building, Muzeul Zemstvei, makes you feel uncomfortable at first. But soon you realize that the community members, the organizers, all the people who are committed to this space, create the festival together. As Maxim later confirmed to me, “despite the challenges, and perhaps because of them, the event stands out from all other experiences and, moreover, it even helps in a way.”
The joint efforts of each person create an experience that cannot be compared to anything else. You can see the connections, the friendship that exists between the members of the community, and you also know for sure that because of this unity, it is impossible for the festival not to secseedee.
Queer Voices got a new queer cafe not long ago. It works three days a week. According to local community members, this is the only LGBTQ entertainment space in Chisinau.
“Opening a queer cafe was possible thanks to QUEER VOICES. Last year this was an empty space, where you could grab a drink and relax between the screenings. The festival is held in winter; the building tends to get cold, so maintaining the audience between screenings was difficult. We thought about adding a similar space, which helped to strengthen the community, so the space organized within the festival continued to exist and helped bring people closer together,” Maxim says.
Anyone can make a film; the main thing is to want it
One of the main components of Queer Voices is screenings of international and local films. However, the main focus of the festival is still workshops, where participants present film ideas and short video outlines, and authors of promising projects can prepare full-length works for the next festival. Professional members of the Queer Voices team are actively involved in this process, and they share their experience with aspiring directors.
“We need to raise our voices and tell our stories. Who else cares about my story but me?”
I don’t even remember in which film in the festival program I heard this phrase, which I wrote down in my phone notes, but it is less important. The main thing is that Queer Voices develops around this idea and aims to empower the members of the community, to tell their experiences, to say something, to support the desire of making independent documentary films and to share their experiences, so that the final result is conceptually sound and interesting for the audience, and to give aspiring creators the opportunity to develop professionally; to establish themselves in the film industry and activism alike.
During the course of each festival, interested people can present their own film ideas, develop topics as a result of workshops, and prepare a short video synopsis during the 5-day period, which will be presented to the audience on the final day of the festival. A promising project is selected by a special jury, and the process of working on a full-length project with industry experts begins. Everyone has an equal chance to make their voice heard and to be involved in the scripting and shooting process of the film, which will be presented again during the festival next year.
When a queer festival or an LGBTQI organization itself supports the idea of equality and aims to improve legal status and visibility, at the same time, it tries to bring LGBTQI people out of a passive role, support their empowerment, provide opportunities for professional development and to maximize them turning their own experience into a step towards progress. When you create an environment, where one can focus their attention towards action, and contemplation on different challenges, progress becomes easier to achieve. Queer Voices focuses on these exact values.
The 2022 festival premiered Happy Land, a film based on the winning idea of the 2020 workshops, a documentary by three female directors: Vasilută Vasilache, Elena Culic and Toma Pan. Happy Land explores the answer to one central question — what is happiness and does everyone deserve it? In the course of the film, we get to know Chisinau’s LGBTQI community, we visit queer-friendly places and hear stories of mutual love, respect, family, friendship and human happiness seen in these spaces, counterbalanced by scenes of street surveys, some of which reveal a sad selective attitude — “everyone deserves happiness, but queer people do so less”.
Another film from this year’s festival, also developed from the 2020 workshops, is Between Two Worlds, which tells the story of a young queer person named Doy. Doy tries to see themselves outside the gender-binary lens and not lose their bearings on the emotionally exhausting journey of self-discovery, self-love and transition, despite societal pressures and mental health challenges. The directors of the film are Doy-Romanța Dochițan and Ana Gurdițan themselves, who directed the audience’s attention to the understanding of the individual experience of sexuality and gender identity acceptance, which I am sure will be similar to the stories of many community members.
A working version of Queerky Town, another film developed during the 2021 festival workshops, also premiered at this year’s festival. Director Christian Doroftei tries to explore the humorous layer of life by a survey of residents of Chisina. Doroftei tries to see the humor beyond heteronormative perception and takes the reader on a journey through the streets of a queer city.
The winner of the 2022 festival workshops was the brainchild of Stella Roxana, an aspiring transgender director who set out to tell the story of accepting one’s identity, dealing with family members and the challenges of transition. A full-length film created by Roxana is expected to premiere at next year’s festival.
Presenting queer art
One of the main goals of Queer Voices is to promote the development of the local LGBTQI scene, so the organizers of the event plan different cultural and educational activities during each festival, which will help in community engagement. Vogue classes from 2021 festival is a good example of this.
According to Maxim, they want to “spark a seed of interest among the locals” so that after the end of the festival, people will have the desire and determination to better understand queer art and become performers themselves.
As part of Queer Voices 2022, three different activities are planned — a drag show, ballroom, and an evening of performative poetry.
Moldova’s local drag scene is in its early stages of development and you will only find a few drag artists. Therefore, Greek Drag performers were invited. They presented their shows to the guests, shared the art of drag, introduced their own drag houses, and in this way introduced the locals to the specifics of the drag scene.
One of the main events of the festival was Ballroom; the jury members and the host were also not local. Representatives from three different queer houses introduced the history and specifics of the ballroom scene to attendees. Locals took part in different ballroom categories.
The biggest innovation we saw during the festival was a performance by Berlin-based queer art group Queerdos – an attempt to explore the place of the queer body and identity in public space, the history of oppression, and the struggle for visibility in conditions of religious, social, economic, or political oppression.
Performers from Berlin took over the streets of Chisinau; cafes and study spaces where they voiced poetic manifestos. We walked the streets with the performers, listened to what they had to say in different locations, became part of the performance, and finally witnessed stories of acceptance and, in some cases, observed invisible oppression through an audio-visual performance.
What is the future of queer voices?
The most important part of the queer film festival was, of course, the screening of international films. The festival program included South American, Asian, and European films, which you can read about in our previous article. In addition, all festival days included screenings of short feature films and documentaries aimed at sharing international experience. You can read about this part of the festival in a separate article.
Although, as Maxim noted, Moldova has already made some progress in improving LGBTQI rights, there is still a problem “in terms of public acceptance. Queer representation in the arts is low. We don’t actually exist for the general society, and despite the lack of aggressive attacks, adapting families, learning spaces, environments in such a way that queer people don’t feel excluded is still a problem.” Therefore, the festival is no less needed now, if not more.
“We are a strong community, and I don’t mean just the LGBTQI community. We want to unite more people. We have great hope that even this space, where we have gathered now, will become a mainstream gathering place, so to speak, and we will promote dialogue between different social groups, create an environment in which all people will feel welcome. At the same time, we want the Moldovan queer culture to spread beyond the country’s borders,” says Maxim regarding the far-reaching goals of the festival.
Maxim also shared that he would like to involve more countries in the region, with experiences similar to Moldova, in the process, to create a support system by sharing common experiences, and get to know different countries, including Georgian, better, in order to see what is needed to be able to transform the environment in the region for the better.
After the end of the festival, we stayed in Chisinau for one more day, once again explored the streets of the city, which seemed to be frozen in time – even in the center of the city you will find ruins of buildings, next to which you will see new, ugly glass buildings or monuments of European architecture. Different times, monuments with different history and value co-exist here, although the most important thing is not visible on the surface -society is, slowly, but still developing. The move towards acceptance continues, and this is primarily due to the fact that active members of the queer community, each LGBTQI person is trying to be as involved and effective as possible, bringing progress for themselves and society. Maybe these are fragments of reality seen by an outside observer. But I know that we still have a long way to go, and the experience of other countries shows us that if the loss of strength and giving up does not hinder us in this process, we can continue to move steadily forward.