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A man knocks on a door and is instantly pounced on by a half-dozen men in their twenties. The ringleader, a woman with fiery red hair and severe bangs, smiles and shouts, “Hold him down!” The terrified victim grunts and pleads as he is punched into submission by Sergei, the most muscular of the group. “I’ll piss on you,” Sergei says. “Give us an interview or we’ll give you the police. They’ll rape you with a sharp stick.” Nearby, two more men hover over a laptop, searching for the next mark.
The scene is real, the participants members of a St. Petersburg-based vigilante group calling itself Operation Pedophilia. The shocking imagery — rife with the kinds of dehumanization tactics and casual brutality that instantly evoke Nazi treatment of the Jews — serves as the centerpiece of a new documentary, the Matthew Bomer-narrated Hunted: The War Against Gays in Russia, debuting Oct. 6 on HBO.
Director Ben Steele tells The Hollywood Reporter that it took little convincing to get Operation Pedophilia and similar bands of anti-gay crusaders to agree to let him tag along on their “safaris,” as they call the ambushes, which are videotaped and later uploaded online for maximum public humiliation. “They feel that they are representing the views of the majority of Russians and they feel they have the support from Russian authorities,” says Steele. “They’re proud of what they’re doing and feel they’re doing the right thing.”
The hard truth is that they have no reason to believe otherwise. Hunted was shot in November and December of last year, after Russia’s president Vladimir Putin passed a flurry of anti-gay legislation that trampled the rights of its LGBT citizens and their supporters. Most of the world first learned of the country’s growing anti-gay climate in the months leading up to the Sochi Olympics in February. A number of athletes spoke out against the policies while on the world stage, but demands from human rights groups that major sponsors like NBCUniversal, Coca-Cola, Visa and General Electric boycott the games fell on deaf ears.
Perhaps if Steele’s film had come sooner, the story would be different. Clocking in at a lean 48 minutes, Hunted is a visceral and terrifying experience, unflinching in its inclusion of scenes from brutal Internet trophy videos. In them, gay men are tracked down by marauding groups of thugs then overpowered, stripped naked, covered in urine and made to dance like children before being pummeled into unconsciousness.
“Hunting season is open,” says one of those victims, a soft-spoken man in his twenties who had recently lost an eye after shooters stormed a gay community meeting. (The police have yet to make any arrests.) The man in the eye patch goes on to bemoan the current climate, in which church and state collude to paint a distorted portrait of all LGBT individuals as predatory pedophiles. The film says a majority of Russian citizens agree.
But Hunted eschews talking-head politicians, focusing instead on the self-appointed enforcers enabled by their laws. So in addition to the safaris, we spend time with a married father of one who spends his free time mounting Internet smear campaigns against gay sympathizers, including one straight woman who is a schoolteacher. Later, the same man gloats as police evacuate a tiny LGBT film festival in St. Petersburg after a bomb scare is called in.
The intention is to turn a nebulous humanitarian struggle halfway across the world into something palpable, terrifying and all too real. Says Steele: “I wanted to get to the core of the issue.”
Hunted: The War Against Gays in Russia debuts Oct. 6 at 9 p.m. on HBO.
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