Based in 1970s Soviet-occupied Estonia, Peeter Rebane’s “Firebird” tells the true story of Sergey Fetisov (Tom Prior), a private in the Soviet military who falls in love with the fighter pilot Roman (Oleg Zagorodnii). The film opened the Out On Film Festival here in Atlanta on September 24.
Rebane came across Fetisov’s story 10 years ago, when a friend of his recommended Fetisov’s memoir, “The Story of Roman,” while he was searching for material for a movie. “I read it in my broken Russian over a week,” Rebane told Georgia Voice, “and then literally cried and felt I had to turn this into a film.”
Prior entered the film when Rebane began looking for an actor to play Sergey in a teaser to raise money for “Firebird.” However, Prior would become much more than the film’s lead actor, as he is credited as both a co-writer and producer and even assisted in the editorial process.
“Subtly at first, I suggested that we change some of the dialogue, and then following successfully working together to create the teaser, I became a little bolder in my feedback,” Prior said. “And then that led to two weeks on how the script could be improved, and then that to two years’ worth of rewriting, restructuring, and researching the film.”
Though “Firebird” marks both Rebane’s entrance into narrative filmmaking and Prior’s into writing, the film presents a unique and refreshing vision on both queer love and Soviet history in film.
Indeed, “Firebird” masterfully avoids many of the tropes and pitfalls that come along with period pieces about queer love, which tend to focus on how cultural and historical restraints result in conflicts between romantic partners. Though “Firebird” does recognize the difficulties the Cold War and the homophobic policies of the USSR brought upon Sergey and Roman’s relationship, the film opts to place more of an emphasis on the happiness and affection the two lovers shared. Prior said that “Sergey and Roman’s relationship felt almost idyllic,” and he and Rebane had to ask the real Sergey Fetisov “where … the line between reality and fantasy beg[a]n” in order to figure out how to incorporate the sociopolitical backdrop into the film.
Rebane and Prior noted that this emphasis on love over politics is what Fetisov wanted for “Firebird.”
“[Fetisov] was a tour de force of love,” Prior said. “He was such a warm and genuine being, which was something I wanted to bring to the film and informed us what to ask him. In one of the last conversations we had with [Fetisov], he said to please, please make the story about love and not about politics. Because, of course, today we will receive this film with the perspective of the political and human rights situation in Russia. And while it is an acute issue, [Fetisov] said to please make it about love, because that will transcend politics.”
Indeed, there is a prescient issue of homophobia in Russia. In 1933, the USSR criminalized sex between men with Article 121, but the law was only overturned in 1993. However, Russia instituted new laws banning “homosexual propaganda” in 2013, which the film covers in its end credits.
On the topic of policy history in the USSR and Russia, “Firebird” also provides a refreshing perspective on living in the Soviet Union. Rebane, who grew up in Soviet-occupied Estonia as Fetisov did, said, “Growing up as a very young boy while still under the Soviet Occupation, it was a colorful, normal world. You didn’t know any better, so you were living your best and your fullest under the circumstances you were in.”
Rebane thus made the inclusion of vibrancy and color key to “Firebird.” “It was one of the principles I had when we started making the film,” he said. “Most Hollywood productions, when they look at the Soviet Union, they do this blueish-green tint and everybody is wearing gray clothes, and it’s stereotypically miserable. But we looked at the world as if through the eyes of a 19- to 20-year-old boy from the countryside seeing this world of sleek jets and the Air Force for the first time.”
Rebane succeeded on this front, as “Firebird” eschews much of the coldness typically associated with depictions of Soviet Russia. Gone are the unsaturated grays and olive greens Western filmgoers have become accustomed to when watching a film about the USSR, as Rebane instead creates a more realistic environment that is warm and colorful enough to foster Sergey and Roman’s love for each other.
With Fetisov sharing his love with Roman in his biography, “The Story of Roman,” and Rebane and Prior retelling his past in “Firebird,” the former soldier and filmmakers are fighting hate with love by transcending politics with a story that embraces romance rather than focusing on restrictions that conflict with love.
“Firebird” is available to stream now through October 1 through Out On Film’s website, outonfilm.org.