By Maria Alanis, Contributing Writer/Filmmaker
Living a mere 81.5 miles from one of the nation’s most LGBTQ+ friendly cities, San Francisco, I’ve grown up watching the rainbow flag wave, men kissing other men and women holding other women. There were times when homophobia still spoke louder than tolerance, but it was concentrated in the more rural areas, where the communities existed in bubbles. I rarely heard those voices; my thinking scarcely tainted with the fear of love. So I looked at the world, and knew with certainty that they were the minority. At least, this was my understanding of how the world operated. Even after recent events of widespread homophobia and xenophobia surfaced across the internet and overwhelmed the news outlets, I still had hope that the world really did care for the LGBTQ+ community. A whole nation could not hate those who were born different, could they?
Filmmaker Paul Rice
To say that I was wrong is a devastating understatement. “A Worm in The Heart” revealed, in a brutal and startling sort of way, just how skewed my bright-eyed views of the world and its shocking lack of acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community, really were. It brought me off of my high horse, pulled me from the safety and privilege of my Northern California bubble and caused me to take a hard look at reality.
The opening scene was a raw collection of audio files that pulled no punches, right away
introducing it’s viewer to the astonishing existence of hatred and bigotry the LQBTQ+
community in Russia must face each day. Voices of the powerful are heard as we watch a train on the The Trans-Siberian Railway travel through a cold evening. The train that director Paul Rice and his partner use to travel across the country, stopping in six different cities to capture the broad reality of living in Russia as a member of the LGBTQ+ community. The voices in the audio files are confident; their words and insults comfortably escape their mouths as they continue speaking to an applauding audience. It is hard to comprehend the words that are being spoken as truths that people believe in the year 2020.
Paul Rice, a director whose sense for letting important moments breathe was both powerful and refreshing to see. His film takes the viewer on what feels like an entirely personal journey through the horrors of daily life for the Russian LGBTQ+ community. We meet Yelena, a mother who bravely speaks in front of a room of people, sharing her support for her son, only to be laughed at. We hear a heckler shouted at her;“Are you a victim, or are you protecting yourself?” As Yelena tries to continue, the room is filled with raucous laughter and mockery.
Further on in the film, we are introduced to Pasha, a transgender woman, whose
interview leaves the room airless and heavy. As we hear her speak, the hollowness in her
breath and void of energy in her voice leaves us with chills. Pasha’s agonizing fight to see her son as her ex-wife refuses to let her near him is hard to fathom from the comfort of my California home. But the heartbreak comes much later, when it is revealed to an already shocked and battle worn audience that no one has been able to contact Pasha in over a year. The sound of her voice burning through the speakers suddenly haunts the viewer – it is impossible to ignore that you are hearing the sound of someone likely lost to horrifying hatred and violence. And suddenly we’re reminded that these interviews are now all that’s left to speak for the pain. The shattered existence that Pasha lived every single day.
The film is a soul-crushing collection of stories from those that have nothing, but somehow still have hope that Russia will someday be a safe place for them to live as their authentic selves. With the country’s myriad laws that prohibit things even so simple as the colorful rainbow flag to be flown, this utopian future seems farther away than ever. Some were so afraid, they chose not to show their face on screen, due to the harsh prospect of the barbaric consequences they could face from Russia’s tyrannical government. It is a striking reminder that the world still has a long way to go in the fight for LGBTQ+ rights.
Watching A Worm in the Heart is extremely difficult at times, for the most part as a result of being forced to face the grim and broken reality of our world. The undeniable fear of those who chose not to meet with Rice was more than understandable, given the world they live in. A world vastly different than the one I was raised in.
The film concludes on a hopeful note, but not before leaving us with the faces of those whose stories we heard; reminding us that the fight is still very much ongoing. A Worm in The Heart is a film that needs to be watched. It is one of the most important LGBTQ+ films to come out in years. The Trans-Siberian Railway is a long journey across Russia, a path brimming with people whose stories have yet to be told, overwhelmed by an atmosphere and society that will do everything in its power to stifle their voices beneath the surface for as long as it possibly can.