Peeter Rebane’s tale of forbidden love between two members of the Soviet Air Force during the Cold War premieres at this year’s virtual BFI Flare Film Festival. Based on a true story, this is a touching and all too familiar account of a hidden relationship, but framed in the dangerous setting of the KGB which has rarely been explored. With a personal touch from Rebane, who grew up in Soviet occupied Estonia, Firebird is an impressively recounted adapotation.
Inspired by Sergey Fetisov’s memoirs ‘The Story of Roman’, Firebird shines a light on the heartbreaking love triangle formed between young air force recruit (Tom Prior), his childhood friend and base secretary Luisa (Diana Pozharskaya) and newcomer fighter pilot Roman (Oleg Zagordnii). Initially drawn together over their shared love of photography and theatre, Sergey and Roman quickly fall for each other and embark on a secret love affair, with long reaching consequences. Their diverging paths come together on a number of occasions, with the film chronicling six years of their lives.
The film follows a familiar narrative to many other similarly themed forbidden queer romances, such as Brokeback Mountain and Boys Don’t Cry, focusing on the dangers faced and sacrifices made. With the ever present threat of the brutal KBG regime looming, there’s certainly an added authoritarian risk and surveillance angle to their relationship. Much like the traditional and hyper masculine setting of the ranches in Brokeback Mountain, it’s fascinating to see comparable parallels explored in the masculine culture of the air force back in the Soviet era. Along with the militant suppression of homosexuality, it’s heartbreaking to see the two having to hide their love of the arts, particularly as their initial visit to the ballet ‘Firebird’ sparked their initial encounter.
The two leads share an exhilarating and believable chemistry which helps elevate the stark coldness of the Soviet backdrop, it’s just a shame that there isn’t more warmth between the characters due to outside forces. When they finally steal an all too brief moment together, their passion and exploration of their sexual identities is clear to see, along with the many wistful and longing glances shared across the military camp. Sergey is clearly the more accepting and open of the two, particularly when he moves to Moscow to pursue his passion of acting, while Roman attempts to deny his true nature by marrying and continues to serve in the military. Their tragic dance doesn’t just affect their own fates however, their betrayal also considerably hurts Roman’s wife and Sergey’s friend Luisa and her son, delivering just as much of a blow to them.
The success of the film also hinged on the faithful representation and authentic recreation of Brezhnev’s USSR, which served as a significantly looming backdrop to the love triangle. Filmed on various locations in Rozenbrika and Rebane, the production team impressively realised the Cold War set, complete with the MIG21 fighter plane, costumes and haircuts. While it’s true to the historical setting, the desaturated and muted tones of the military base in Estonia and Moscow do make for an uninspired watch at times. When the pair finally escape for a midnight swim or to a sunny getaway, do we finally see some welcome warmth and colour onscreen.
Firebird shines a light on the moving and untold historical love story, which certainly reminds us to appreciate our freedoms in the West. While somewhat predictable, the central pairing of Prior and Zagordnii make for a compelling and gripping romance.