Rory Peck Awards Sony Impact Finalist: Ben Steele

Ben has been nominated for Hunted, a startling look into Russia's treatment of its gay community

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The Independent Online

At the end of 2013, British freelance filmmaker Ben Steele entered the world of Russian vigilante gangs to document the elaborate harassment campaigns that are brought against gay people there.

His film exposes the grassroots violence that is creating a climate of fear amongst the gay community, and towards which the Russian authorities appear, at the very least, indifferent.

From Ben:

"Before I made the film, people were generally aware that it wasn’t fun to be gay in Russia but I wanted to get deeper into the story and communicate the terror that gay people routinely face.  

At the same time, I was genuinely curious about what it was that motivated the vigilantes who hunt gay people for sport – entrapping, humiliating, and abusing them. Putin had turned the volume up, by bringing in a law banning so called “non-traditional relationships” and claiming a link between homosexuality and paedophilia, but I was interested in the people rather than the politics of it. 

Very few people wake up and think, “I want to do bad things today”.  Most people believe they are on the side of good.  That’s why I decided to explore the story from the side of the vigilantes. I wanted to explore their motivation and try to understand why they feel they are doing the right thing.

Timor, the father I spent time with, is genuinely, passionately committed to his ‘cause’. He saw himself as sticking his neck out to act on behalf of the silent majority.

Katya, the leader of a gang that hunts out and entraps gay men, is an extraordinary character.  Yes, she enjoys the power of what she’s doing, and there is an element of thuggery about her and her group, but she also believes she’s doing good. The group falsely believe there is a link between homosexuality and paedophilia so they see themselves as protecting their community.

I was with the group when a young gay man was unexpectedly brought to their flat - having being entrapped online and lured to meet up.   The atmosphere in the room when they where assaulting and humiliating him was extremely powerful: a disturbing combination of testosterone and blood lust.  You could kind of smell the mixture of hate, fear and aggression. I was making a choice when I filmed that scene. My focus was on Katya and her gang, not on the young man who was being attacked. But I was scared for him and I genuinely felt that my filming was acting as a safety valve - that they couldn’t do anything too extreme as long as I was there with my camera switched on.  That’s why I kept filming when they ordered me to stop.  I knew if I obeyed them that I would become complicit in what they were doing. You see in the film, Katya reminding the guys to be careful, that I’m a journalist, so I think my presence did make a difference to that young man’s fate.

Gaining access to the group was a constant game of cat and mouse.  I first contacted them through social media, and was forced through lots of hoops before I met them. They were wary of me, of course, they know that in the UK gay people are accepted. But I told them that my job was simply to document, to present them and their motivation, and let audiences make up their own mind. And that’s what I did. You can watch the film and come to a different conclusion depending on where you come from and what you believe.  The vigilantes had no problems with it.

There has been a very strong reaction to the film, and I think that’s because it doesn’t tell people what to think. It shows human beings as they are, and that’s powerful. We’re not used to it.

You can only make this kind of film as a self-shooter. Everyone has the person they want to project and then the person who they really are. I’m interested in the latter, and after a few hours it’s very difficult for people to maintain their guard and to keep pretending. So I try to let things unfold in front of me. I simply put myself in a situation and then film it."