The Circle chronicles Switzerland's evolution from homophobia to gay acceptance

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We've seen a wave of unsettling news about antigay legislation in countries like Russia, India, Nigeria, and Uganda. However, taking a look at how some countries have managed to evolve from homophobia into pro-LGBT states can provide perspective.

The docudrama The Circle (Der Kreis) provides that by chronicling the story of the first gay-rights organization in Switzerland, Der Kreis (The Circle). The film focusses on the relationship between two of the group's members: a French-literature teacher at a girls' school named Ernst Osterstag, who fell for a hairdresser/drag queen, Robi Räpp. Both the organization and the male couple faced numerous struggles, including the need for secrecy, police harassment, and a series of murders.

Director Stefan Haupt, on the line from his Zürich office, said he first heard about the story because his older brother, who is gay, knew the couple, who were interested in having a documentary made about their lives.

What Haupt learned about Swiss LGBT history proved to be eye-opening to him.

"For many of us here in Zürich, it's a very surprising thing to hear about all these things because it's not common knowledge at all," he said. "I was not aware that Switzerland in the '30s and the '40s, the beginnings of the '50s, really was such a liberal country in terms of gay rights or that you were legally allowed to have homosexual relationships and this was quite a special thing compared to Germany."

Yet even though homosexuality was legal, social intolerance remained a hold-over.

"I wasn't aware that the repression was that strong in the '60s when these few murders had occurred in Zürich and the police stepped up and took quite a strong repression against gays and lesbian people," Haupt said. "Today we are well aware that Zürich is quite a gay-friendly city again and these things would not occur in that manner but at the same time, it's still a topic to be discussed and it's still quite a way from a sort of tolerance to a real acceptance."

Haupt personally experienced the homophobia that exists in Switzerland when he was shooting Moritz in 2003. In the TV movie, controversy arises in the countryside when a mother asks a gay neighbour couple to take care of son when she becomes hospitalized.

Haupt also found that the real-life villagers had the same reaction as the fictional villagers in the movie.

"When we were shooting this over 10 years ago in a little village in Switzerland, some of the people were really opposing the film project as well," he said. "We were allowed to shoot some scenes in one of the houses of the village and all of a sudden, the owner of the house told us, 'I'm very happy that my house is not the house of the gay people because I wouldn't have given you my house for gay people.' "

Haupt said he feels that these issues are important to revisit in order to address the universal theme of building "a world where there are enough places for everybody".

Haupt added that he derives a great sense of satisfaction from seeing Osterstag and Räpp (who were Switzerland's first same-sex couple to be legally married) have lived to see not only acceptance but accolades and applause.

"It's such a gift to see them now in their older days, relaxing, and all of a sudden realizing how much support they have from all over the place. It was fantastic to be with them in Berlin and get these prizes and these awards and see what a gift it means to them on a totally different level, not only what it means for us as filmmakers but for them as human beings to have this acknowledgement now."

The Circle plays on Friday (May 9) at the Cinematheque as part of the 2014 DOXA Documentary Film Festival.  

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