By Brian Lowry
LOS ANGELES (Variety) - Deeply disturbing, HBO's "Hunted: The War Against Gays in Russia" documents elaborate harassment campaigns conducted by vigilante groups, with one member proudly calling his country "Hell for homosexuals." Stoked by a mix of ignorance and religion, director Ben Steele's film goes beyond Russia's controversial anti-gay "propaganda" law to expose grass-roots violence creating a "climate of fear" toward which authorities appear at best indifferent. Homophobia obviously isn't confined to Russia, but the extent of that hostility, and these efforts to harm and humiliate gays, are captured with unflinching candor.
Steele's crew spent time with members of different anti-gay groups, gaining enough of their confidence to be allowed to film their activities. Some perform what amount to sting operations, seeking to lure gays online to what victims think are sexual encounters, only to physically and emotionally abuse them, then post the videos to out and humiliate them. Stunningly, the perpetrators are so proud of their efforts, they grant producers access to one of these assaults, before rethinking the idea and trying to block the cameras.
The brutality of these attacks is clear, but if that weren't enough, a bomb threat is phoned in to a theater hosting a gay film festival, and the zealots talk openly about - and even distribute literature - encouraging gays to commit suicide. Moreover, such antipathy is endorsed by the Russian Orthodox Church, which condemns homosexuality.
Most gays interviewed, meanwhile, insist on anonymity, living closeted lives due to concerns about losing their jobs or having their children taken away if they're exposed.
Narrated by Matt Bomer (who recently co-starred in HBO's "The Normal Heart"), "Hunted" doesn't offer any rays of hope or notes of comfort. The film merely places its lens on a situation that, for those enduring it, must feel like a dystopian nightmare, and for those watching it, provides yet another disheartening glimpse of cruelty masquerading as righteousness.