Their faces are covered by their hands or signs, or their eyes are digitally obscured. They receive insults ranging from “Be careful! He could fuck your ass with that fork!” to words to the effect that if Hitler were in power instead of Putin, they’d have been shot. A teacher says they should be burned or banished. Even a mother told her son that she wished she’d had a miscarriage, that she should never have given birth to him, that he should have died.
These are Children 404. They’re the invisible ones, children who do not exist, in Russia.
They, in fact, do exist. Their existence, cursed with incessant bullying, suicide attempts, and having to leave home, is a torturous one. The government and media do not address them, unless in a derogatory way. And Russia’s infamous antigay propaganda law, passed in June 2013, has emboldened homophobes to become even more vocal and vicious in their attacks on LGBT people.
While countries such as Uganda, Nigeria, and India have subsequently passed antigay laws as well, it was Sochi 2014 that vaulted the Russian legislation into the glare of global criticism. (Even Vancouver city councillor Tim Stevenson headed a mission to advocate for LGBT rights with the International Olympic Committee in February.)
The name Children 404, for both the Russian social-network group and the documentary about it at the Vancouver Queer Film Festival, comes from a news article that compared these unrecognized youth to the Internet error message “404: page not found”.
Former journalist Elena Klimova founded the online group on Facebook and VKontakte for LGBT Russian youth to share their stories anonymously, providing virtual support for those struggling to survive in the suffocating social climate.
Under the antigay law, Klimova was put on trial for creating the group; on February 27, however, a judge ruled that the group had nothing to do with propaganda about homosexuality and dismissed the case.
Filmmakers Askold Kurov and Pavel Loparev travelled to Klimova’s town, Nizhny Tagil, to interview her and to make a film that would give queer Russian youth a chance to speak out.
Klimova sent out emails to more than 700 children in her network to ask who else wanted to participate in the documentary, and 78 said yes.
On the phone from Moscow, Kurov, who is originally from Uzbekistan, says the filmmaking duo began conducting Skype and phone interviews with these youth but had to proceed with caution.
“When we had 45 interviews, we found that meeting with these children in real life might be quite dangerous for them, and maybe for us,” he says.
Both filmmakers are gay, but such was the extent of their need to remain closeted that neither actually knew the other’s orientation until this production.
In fact, making the film became a coming-out journey for the 40-year-old Kurov himself. Kurov grew up in the Soviet Union era, when being gay was against the law, and he had even previously thought he could become straight. Although he says he knew he was gay by age 12, he now feels more confident after making this film and will no longer hide being gay from friends and family.
“These children helped me a lot to fix my own problems regarding this subject,” he says. “Only after this film, I managed to talk with my mother about this and I made my own coming-out. I felt more free because of it.”
In the film, voiceovers detail such internal struggles that many closeted gay people experience. What should be one of life’s most cherished awakenings—a first crush or love—is relayed as one of horror, shock, or pain, and the catalyst for self-loathing.
In the search for the freedom to be, many queer Russians move to other, more LGBT–friendly, countries, such as Canada. That’s exactly what Pasha, one of the few interviewees to show his face in the documentary, is planning to do. Amusingly, Pasha is captured on-camera singing a mangled version of “O Canada” in Lenin’s mausoleum and he even—beliebe it or not—idolizes Justin Bieber as a symbol of western freedom.
Kurov says that Pasha, who moved to Toronto and renamed himself Justin, now has a new life, new friends, and is “absolutely happy”, something Kurov wants to thank Canada for.
Canadians also played a pivotal role in getting this film project off the ground.
When Cinema Politica invited Kurov with his previous documentary, Winter, Go Away!, in 2012, Kurov made several connections while visiting Montreal that became integral to the funding of Children 404.
“When we started with Children 404, we didn’t have any money, any sources, in Russia,” he says. “To be able to make this movie without problems, we had to stay anonymous until we finished, and this is why we cannot start any fundraising campaigns ourselves, neither in Russia nor abroad.”
In their stead, Canadian academics and activists—Ryan Conrad, Thomas Waugh, Ezra Winton, and Svetla Turnin—launched a fundraising campaign online on their behalf. The $11,000 they raised exceeded Kurov’s expectations. “It was a really great gift,” he said.
Kurov used that gift to give back to LGBT people.
A VQFF spotlight, entitled Queer Russia, With Love, will showcase the film alongside Winter Journey. Ironically, the latter gay drama, directed by Sergei Taramajev and Liubov Lvova, was approved by the Russian Ministry of Culture prior to Putin’s antigay legislation. Its theatrical release wound up being halted.
The film follows the paths of opera singer Erik, rebelling against a regimented life, and violent rogue Lyokha, eking out a haphazard existence. Their ways unexpectedly entwine as each becomes enthralled by the other’s polar-opposite lifestyle.
Another festival selection, Eastern Boys, explores similar territory when a French businessman takes an Eastern European hustler home, only to become a victim of a home invasion by the young man’s gang, led by a Russian thug. Feelings develop between the two men and, inevitably, complications arise.
Kurov, whose private screening of his film in Moscow was stormed by Orthodox patriotic activists with armed police who accused the filmmakers of making gay propaganda, says he’s looking forward to visiting Vancouver to appear at the VQFF for his screening.
“I hope our film can help people not only in Russia but maybe it could be useful for Canadians as well.”
Children 404, Winter Journey, and Eastern Boys all screen at the 26th Vancouver Queer Film Festival, which runs from August 14 to 24. For more information, visit queerfilmfestival.ca/.