LGBTQ teens endlessly tormented by classmates. Psychologists blaming hate crime victims for “not showing enough love” to their aggressors. Young activists being spat on in public squares, their oppressors undeterred by the presence of cameras. For those wondering just how dire the situation is for gay youth in Russia, journalist Elena Klimova likens it to the African-American Civil Rights Movement. “A few generations from now, Russians will look back on this time as the Stone Age,” she tells co-directors Askold Kurov and Pavel Loparev in the harrowing new documentary Children 404, which had its world premiere at Toronto’s Hot Docs Festival last week.
In response to Russia’s adoption of its Anti-Homosexual Bill last year, which outlawed “the propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations to minors,” Klimova set up a closed support group on Facebook and VKontakte (a popular social network in Russia), where teens could share mutual tales of harassment and ostracism. The group’s name took after the standard ‘404 not found’ URL error message – an apt reminder that these estimated 2.5 million LGBTQ pariahs don’t exist in the eyes of Putin’s gay-propaganda-purged Russia.
Funded by Cinema Politica through a Canadian Indiegogo campaign, Kurov and Loparev’s film offers a splintered but no less powerful collection of teen testimonials about virulent homophobia. “I wasn’t prepared for a life where everyone hates me,” says one anonymous Skype user. “My father said he was ready to grab a gun and kill [homosexuals], while my older sister thinks they should be treated in a mental hospital,” shares another.
Children 404’s most compelling storyline comes courtesy of its main protagonist, Pasha. An impassioned 18-year-old activist from Ulyanovsk who dreams of “Justin Bieber, a house by the seaside, and a family,” Pasha makes it his mission to “evacuate Russia” and seek asylum in Canada, which he considers the ultimate safe haven for gays. In one of the film’s few moments of comic relief, Pasha visits a memorial to Lenin where he bursts into an off-the-cuff rendition of Canada’s national anthem, reading the lyrics off his smartphone. Now living in Toronto and studying English, Pasha – who’s since changed his name to Justin, knows how lucky he is to have a supportive mom by his side. “Russian teens want to leave the country but when they come out to their parents, most get kicked out of their homes and are left with nothing – no resources, no money, no visa – to help them move to more liberal countries,” he told me via an interpreter at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox. “My mom is one of the very few parents [of LGBTQ teens] who accepted me instead of throwing me out. She sold her apartment to pay for my studies in Canada because she understands how difficult it is for gays in Russia. I’m so lucky to have her.”
Having filmmakers Kurov and Loparev by his side also doesn’t hurt. When I ask the directors whether they’re concerned for their own safety, as the first ones out of the gate with a film that gives a voice to the country’s LGBTQ teens, they both respond with a resigned shrug, hinting at how they’ve learned to make do with the roller-coastering uncertainty of Putin’s regime. “Everything in Russia is so unexpected,” explains Kurov. “We don’t know what to anticipate, whether we would be fined or if the film could be banned in Russia…Nothing can be ruled out.”
The Wrath of Russian Orthodoxy
For both filmmakers, who set out to make this film “to better understand how the new law impacts our country’s LGBTQ teens, especially being gay ourselves,” receiving a standing ovation at Hot Docs provided a nice counterpoint to their struggles with a private screening in Moscow a few weeks ago. “Orthodox activists tried to ruin in,” recalls Loparev. “They broke in with weapons and police, trying to find minors so they could accuse us of gay propaganda. The police checked everybody’s documents, but we managed to straighten it all out and continue the showing. It was very powerful.”
Loparev worked as a journalist for over a decade before turning his back on the profession “because Russian media became government propaganda, more or less.” He thinks the significant coverage Western media allotted to LGBT issues during the Sochi Olympics had an adverse effect on home turf. “In Russia, people think the Western world is trying to impose its views through propaganda; they think they’re being brainwashed. So it worsens the situation.” Still, his partner-in-crime Kurov believes that with the Sochi dust now settling and the eyes of the world now turned to Putin’s gluttonous appetite for Ukraine, international coverage of Russian LGBTQ issues remains critical to the movement’s very survival. “Russian authorities are getting irritated by this, and I believe it’s really important for all the kids of Children 404 to know how the film is being received abroad.”
Storming The Kremlin, One Belieber At A Time
As for Justin, who describes his first six months in Canada as “great, even though I have encountered difficulties that have nothing to do with discrimination,” he found the strength to come out by channeling a very unlikely source of inspiration, none other than Justin Bieber. “When I lived in Russia, I was always listening to Justin Bieber because I saw him as a symbol of Western culture,” he recalls, visibly amused by the bewildered look on my face. “A lot of people hated him in Russia because they thought he was gay, but that’s exactly when I came out – it revived me, it gave me energy. I don’t understand what his songs are about, but I like what he looks like, his body is amazing, and it gives me power.”
Now, as Justin pursues journalism studies and becomes better acquainted with Canada, he remains cautiously optimistic about the plight of LGBTQ rights in his native country. “A lot of teens are realizing that they should come out, because they want families and kids. Ten years ago, a gay person in Russia couldn’t dream of a family. Now, the situation is changing around the world. You simply have to gather all your inner strength, and you have to fight.”