This Autumn, Hamburg film festival heaped praise on the film ‘Children-404’, which tells a story of LGBT teenagers in Russia. It shares the name with an online support group, which was founded to help the teenagers affected by the ban on ‘gay propaganda among the minors’. Pandeia has talked to Lena Klimove, the founder of the group, and to Pavel Loparev and Askold Kurov, the directors of the documentary.
The ban on ‘gay propaganda’, while not directly segregating LGBT people, has, practically, legalised homophobic actions. And while many adult LGBT people can still carry on with the lives they had before the law, minors have to keep their sexuality secret, or face problems such as forced “therapy sessions”, or discrimination at school. Coming out, which has never been easy, has been made even harder, pushing many of LGBT teenagers on the verge of suicide. Lena Klimova, a young journalist from Nizhniy Tagil, who has suffered from homophobic attitude of her colleagues, created ‘Children- 404’, to let LGBT teenagers come out anonymously and support each other. The way this group has to operate shows just how far everyday homophobia has gone in Russia. What Lena is fighting for now is simple recognition.
Last year, Lena and her group were taken to court for violating the new law ‒ but were acquitted. Now, a new round of persecution is about to start ‒ this time, basing on a bogus ‘psychology expert evaluation’ of the group (a curious document heavily referring to Orthodox Christianity). The expertise, it seems, is aimed mainly not at the group itself, but at the psychologists who are offering their help to LGBT teenagers.
The film ‘Children- 404’ is mostly shot against a gloomy background of small and dull provincial towns. The colours are bland or dark, the voices are quiet ‒ it is a very accurate portrayal of the everyday life of many Russians. Everybody has to blend in, and those who don’t are regarded as something indecent, and are forced to disappear ‒ leave the country, or stay at home and live in the internet. The antagonism shown in the documentary is more passive than aggressive ‒ like a school teacher that tries to close the door on the cameraman. The directors have deliberately focused on the everyday life and struggle of their characters, and left out loud protest, to show that it is this quiet, grey everyday life that is doing most harm.
One of the biggest questions many have asked in Russia is why, after 20 years of tolerance, this sexual minority is suddenly attracting so much attention. Haven’t we all got used to openly gay celebrities? The answer lies, probably, in the way Russian culture treats topics related to sex, which is still largely a taboo. And, like every other forbidden topic, it is attractive. Before the ban, talking about sex and sexuality was regarded as indecent ‒ but after the ban was introduced, discussing other people’s sexuality (and being proud of ‘doing it the right way’) has become acceptable. ‘”It gave the people a reason to feel better about themselves, just because they belong to a majority”, ‒ says Askold, ‒ “I can see why the elite is doing it ‒ they want to distract public attention from the politics it is doing, and give them a way to channel their aggression towards something they don’t understand. It is very easy to hate an ‘other’, and feel good just because you are straight, or Russian, or white.”
Despite the hostile background, the main mood of the documentary is not depressing. The two main characters, Lena and Pasha (a boy in his late teens, who suffered from bullying at school for being gay) joke about today, and dream about the future. The directors do not conceal their fascination with them.
“I met Pasha at a protest in winter 2012, and was struck by his sunny, open personality. He was about to leave for Canada to study, so I just followed him around all through his last month in Russia, helped him renovate his apartment, and came to see him off on his flight to Toronto’, ‒ says Askold, the director‒ ‘and when we came to see Lena, she was so welcoming. We talked non-stop for hours, and we still keep in touch.” They believe, that the main reason people are so homophobic is ignorance: the main source of information for many is the TV, which is controlled by the conservative government, and with the new ban in power, it is much harder to find any other information online. This is the main reason why groups like ‘Children-404’ mean so much for these teenagers ‒ and why the directors have insisted on keeping it in open access in Russia. They, too, remain optimistic.
Words by Daria Sukharchuk
Picture from: Children-404