Firebird is an Estonian film that follows the true story of a love affair that flared in the midst of the Cold War. Sergey (Tom Prior) is a young private on a Soviet airbase in Estonia, and he falls for a new Lieutenant named Roman (Oleg Zagorodnii). The film tracks their relationship as it develops, chronicling the pair’s personal issues and the trouble they had keeping their amorous activities a secret underneath a totalitarian government.
The first of many baffling directorial decisions you’ll notice in Firebird is the language all of the characters speak in. Like Enemy At The Gates, another film set in the Soviet Union, this film has all of its characters, regardless of nationality, speak in English. Though obviously inaccurate, this decision makes sense as the film was made by and for Americans. However, Firebird is an Estonian story set entirely in Estonia, so it’s absolutely baffling that all of the characters speak English with Eastern Bloc accents of varying quality. The decision is bizarre given the context and is quite a shallow move used to ensure that English speaking audiences will be more likely to watch it. If a film is good enough, it doesn’t matter what language it’s in. Just look at Parasite.
Language aside, the film, in general, is filled with very dull directing and cinematography. The script is completely generic, and the soundtrack is lifeless, composed of music that sounds like a collection of royalty-free songs from YouTube. The camera rarely does anything besides close-ups and medium shots, and the actors have little to do other than stand in one place and blurt out their lines. Regardless of what’s on-screen, each shot has very basic lighting, meaning that nothing looks particularly moving or exciting. There is some nice imagery of cities and landscapes, but it’s the sort of photography you’d expect from a tourism advert, not a dramatic film.
The fact that the story is true makes this film somewhat difficult to judge. Although based on real experiences, the film feels as if it could have taken place anywhere in the 1970-80s. Rebane’s dull execution is a shame, as a Soviet film about forbidden love could have been really unique in this setting. Instead, Firebird is a very standard story and will feel especially familiar to fans of Call Me By Your Name.
Firebird should be commended at least for its production design. Though the story could have basically happened anywhere, the film still looks as though it was filmed in Soviet-occupied Estonia. The sets are pretty well designed, the airbase feels lived in and all of the uniforms look proper and authentic. Plus, there are some cool scenes with fighter jets; one might wish that these scenes could have been the focus, as a Soviet version of Top Gun sounds much more interesting.
Firebird adds nothing new to the vast library of LGBTQ+ cinema even though it had every opportunity to be fresh and exciting.
Dir: Peeter Rebane
Scr: Tom Prior, Peeter Rebane
Cast: Tom Prior, Nicholas Woodeson, Diana Pozharskaya, Oleg Zagorodnii
DOP: Mait Mäekivi
Country: Estonia | UK
Runtime: 107 mins
Firebird will screen as part of the 2021 BFI Flare Festival on March 17th 2021