A young private in the Cold War-era Soviet Air Force risks his freedom and his life after falling for a daring fighter pilot in “Firebird.”
The film makes its southeastern debut on Thursday as the Opening Night selection for this year’s Out On Film festival.
“Firebird” is a true story based on Sergey Fetisov’s memoir “The Story of Roman.” The path from page to screen began a decade ago when writer, director and producer Peeter Rebane read the book.
“It almost felt unbelievable that such a love story could exist in the Soviet Air Force,” Rebane told Project Q Atlanta.
“We’ve seen other forbidden love stories,” he added. “For me, this was a totally new discovery.”
Tom Prior, the star and co-writer of the film, will attend the Out on Film screening. After roles in mainstream hits “The Theory of Everything” and “Kingsmen: The Secret Service,” he connected with Rebane in 2014.
“We got on really well right away,” Prior told Q. “I was fascinated by the story.”
Trouble at ‘Firebird’ screening in Russia
They shot a “Firebird” teaser in 2015 to help raise the financing for a full-length feature. Prior’s script suggestions turned into a co-writing gig, and the pair spent two years rewriting and restructuring.
“Through many, many, many drafts together, we ended up coming to something that we were happy with and felt that worked,” Prior said.
The pair started shooting in 2018 with Oleg Zagorodnii in the key role of the fighter pilot Roman. They completed the final edit last fall, and the film premiered at London’s LGBTQ film festival in March.
A screening at the Moscow International Film Festival followed. The invitation “shocked” them considering the film’s gay storyline and the country’s long anti-LGBTQ record, Rebane said.
“‘LGBT people don’t exist in Russia.’ That’s actually the rhetoric,” Prior said. “It’s astounding.”
The first screening went peacefully. Then negative reactions ran in the press and a letter from the Russian government told organizers to ban the film.
“They actually canceled all of our tickets and invites, so it played to an empty hall,” Rebane said.
The next screening was the U.S. premiere of “Firebird” at the Frameline Film Festival in San Francisco.
“Which was the exact opposite,” Rebane said. “Amazing.”
‘Amazing opportunity’ to screen at Out On Film
If anything, the experience screening “Firebird” in Russia reiterated why Rebane and Prior set out to make the film.
“It’s so important to tell a story like this and say these people exist, and why can‘t they love as rightly as you love?” Prior said. “These are two people who just want to be together no matter what.”
Rebane said he hoped the message of “Firebird” spreads beyond Russia to other anti-LGBTQ countries around the world.
“The least we can do is lend our support in terms of time and attention,” he said. “And also for people in those countries to feel some hope.”
The film festival demand for “Firebird” has grown so much that it’s opening both Out On Film and the Reeling Chicago Lesbian & Gay Film Festival on the same night. Rebane will travel with the film to Chicago while Prior will be in attendance in Atlanta.
“I’m super fascinated and super grateful to be able to travel to parts of the world that I’ve never been to,” Prior said. “It’s an amazing opportunity to be the opening night film in Atlanta, so I’m so grateful to be attending.”
“It’s been a long road, and I’m really glad to be able to screen it for the audiences in Atlanta,” Rebane added.
‘Firebird’ screens Sept. 23 as the Opening Night selection at Out on Film at Midtown Art Cinema, 7 p.m. It streams virtually for online audiences beginning at 12 midnight, then through Oct. 1. Watch trailers for other Out on Film entries and visit outonfilm.org.
This article also ran in Q ATLus magazine. Read the full issue online here: