American director Cary Cronenwett explores the themes of revolution, homosexuality and corruption while re-imagining Soviet history in his latest project, “Maggots and Men”.
The 53-minute film, narrated by a fictional portrayal of sailor Stepan Petrichenko, is a dramatisation of the 1921 Kronstadt rebellion set in a mythologized, post-revolutionary Russia. It mixes the narrative images acted out on stage by an agit-prop theatre group, Blue Blouse, with action scenes from life on the naval base showcasing the strikes in St. Petersburg, unsuccessful negotiations with government officials, and the two-week standoff between the sailors and Lenin’s Red Army.
“Kronstadt was first described to me as an island of anarchist sailors, which sounded like perfectly dreamy subject matter for a film: combining beefcake with history and politics. As I started researching I found the actual history to be more amazing than anything I could imagine,” said Cronenwett, who is the film’s writer as well as its director.
Officially released in 2009, “Maggots and Men” was shot on Super 8 and 16-millimetre film reels and pays tribute to early Soviet-era film directors by mimicking newsreel footage. Filmed in black and white with dialogue in Russian and English, it also features an original score performed by a four-piece ensemble, giving it a visual and aural texture of the period.
“1920s Soviet filmmakers were in a fruitful creative conflict with each other, and we both consciously and unconsciously applied the stratagems of Eisenstein, Pudovkin, and Kuleshov … We were influenced by Dovzhenko’s Earth, Vertov’s self reflexive cinema,” said Ilona Berger, the film’s co-writer and director of photography.
Wanting the setting for the story to be “dreamy and romantic”, it needed to be in another time and place – and not the contemporary US Navy, which was too serious a subject matter, Cronenwett said. He cast straight, gay and transgender actors for an all-male environment of a Russian naval base.
“Much of homosexual content is left out of traditional histories and even non-traditional histories. Though the relationship (in “Maggots and Men”) between Petrichenko and Kilgast is surely fictional, I am trying to reference the homosexuality that was indeed taking place, in one form or another, at Kronstadt in 1921,” says the director with certainty.
Not wanting to dive into a “discussion about who was less bad, Lenin or Trotsky, or dissecting where they each went wrong”, Cronenwett decided to focus the film on gender equality within a universal struggle of “choosing the right path in life and feeling defeated, frustrated, and alone” as something people can relate to.
But in Russia, where pride in the country’s history is very strong and homosexuality is widely shunned, the director’s goal of bringing together the queer communities with audiences attracted to the political and historical content of the film may be far-fetched.
“Small film festivals, such as Kinoteatr.doc, have shown films with perverse themes where you couldn’t tell what gender the character is and it was fine. But if you touch political and especially historical content, people become very intolerant,” said one Russian film expert who declined to be identified.
Audiences may have a difficult time accepting the film’s images of sailors, whom history has “mythologised to an island of anarchist sailors and martyrs” – gardening, tumbling and enjoying picnics in blossoming fields, and participating in openly gay love scenes.
Aware of the country’s intolerance towards homosexuality, Cronenwett defends his decision to choose Russia instead of a more gay-friendly country for the film’s setting.
“In my book research I came across arrest records from 1921 where a sailor was arrested in Petrograd in drag … it confirmed our assumptions that gay/gender-bending cabaret culture had reached St. Petersburg and the sailors were partying on the mainland,” he says.
When reached for comment, various film distributing companies in Russia declined to comment, claiming no knowledge of the movie.
To date, “Maggots and Men” has received no attention from the Russian media, something Cronenwett hopes to overcome during Russia’s film festival season.
He has already submitted Maggots to St. Petersburg’s Side-by-Side LGBT International Film Festival taking place in October.
In the past year, Cronenwett has been showcasing “Maggots” on the international film festival circuit, including last year’s Vancouver Queer Film Festival and this year’s BFI London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival and Chicago’s Anarchist Film Festival.
“I am more concerned with being understood by a smaller audience rather than misunderstood by the general public. Meaning, I am concerned more with artistic self-expression rather than sending out a public service announcement,” he added.