Bred in Ireland and beckoned to San Francisco, Paul Rice’s latest project, A Worm in the Heart, has brought him closer to home with the documentary set to screen at this year’s Dublin International Film Festival. A clearly passionate storyteller, he and his partner made a bold decision to pack their bags and head to Russia, seeking out those who are rarely given the means to tell their tales. The result is a truly poignant documentary that voices the struggles of the country’s queer community.
“A Worm in the Heart is all about the really brave stories of the LGBT+ community across Russia. The film follows myself and my partner, Liam, as we went undercover and traveled across all of Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway. We stopped off in cities that were thousands of kilometres apart to meet with these LGBT+ people who really risked everything to meet with us.”
This was no easy task by any means, and one that you do not take on lightly. The Russian queer community is strictly censored under the Gay Propaganda Law of 2013, enacted the same year coincidentally that Paul came out. Since then, events like the Irish Marriage Equality Referendum inspired him to pursue queer stories.
“Voting in the Marriage Equality Referendum was such an unreal moment, it was so cool and it was a great moment personally, but for Ireland it was amazing. Leading up to that vote I watched it like a hawk and I looked at other countries – what had they done, had they passed anything similar, or how did they fail, or how did they succeed. Just researching that led me to Russia and other countries that probably won’t do that for a very long time. And it was really heartbreaking, and I remember being really angry.”
Having grown up in Ireland, followed by moving to the Castro in San Francisco which is, in his own words, “the gayest part of the most LGBT+ friendly city in the world,” it is almost impossible to fully prepare for the contrasting lived experiences of queer people in environments that are neither welcoming nor accepting.
“Not to sound dramatic but it felt a little bit like a parallel universe,” Paul began. “Especially St Petersburg and Moscow where we started, they look like beautiful grand European cities. It looks like Europe in many ways but it feels very, very different. It was really shocking.”
“But then the second we actually started to meet with people, our worries did dissipate quite a lot because it kind of put into perspective the danger that we were in compared to them. We were tourists, yes we could have been jailed, we could have been fined, that has happened before with other LGBT+ tourists, so that was a real danger. But it was their lives, they were risking everything, you could see it in their faces, you could see the weight that they were carrying around, you could see how worried they were just initially meeting us like ‘are you who you say you are?’”
Those who shared their stories revealed the troubling realities they face as queer people living in a hugely homophobic country. There are many things to be learned from their experiences, but Paul has one clear message that he hopes the audience will take away:
“People aren’t propaganda. It doesn’t matter if they’re LGBT+, but it doesn’t matter if they’re an asylum seeker, or if they’re an immigrant, or any kind of minority group. It’s so easy to look at a group that you’re not part of, that you don’t understand, and think that they’re dangerous, or think that they’re scary, or think that they’re trying to undermine the country. Because that’s literally what the official line in Russia is, and Russian people, by and large, do think that.”
A Worm in the Heart will be available to screen from March 6th, and speaking of the upcoming event, along with the support he has received from his home country, Paul’s gratitude and elation were evident.
“This is hands-down the most excited I’ve been for any festival. It’s like the homecoming festival, but it’s also Dublin. Dublin is huge, it’s an amazing festival, it’s a big one… It means so much, it really, really does.”
Tickets for the documentary are available to pre-order now, and the film is eligible for the Virgin Media Audience Awards. DIFF 2021 takes place from March 3rd- 14th, with a number of must-see queer titles being made available to audiences across Ireland.
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