Children 404 is an online support forum for Russian LGBT teens that was created in reaction to Putin’s notorious “gay propaganda” law. Kids who access it get to connect with their peers; they learn that they’re not crazy, they’re not sick, and most importantly that they’re not alone. There’s also a private area where teens can get help from professional counselors donating their time.
This intensely moving documentary focuses on two people: Elena Klimova, the site’s creator; Pasha, an openly gay teen who’s moving to Toronto to study journalism. They talk about their hopes and wishes: for a better future, where Putin-fueled homophobia will be as unimaginable as segregation; for a family, kids, a house, just having a normal life, something that would never be possible in today’s Russia. They never asked to be activists, but what choice do they have? As Elena points out one one scene, even hiding won’t ensure your safety, and you’d constantly be looking over your shoulder anyway.
Interspersed with their scenes are several dozen short testimonies from Children 404 teens—anonymous, of course: we just hear their voices, and see shaky homemade footage of their schools or neighbourhoods. They talk about getting bullied, beat up, having to hide relationships from classmates, growing up believing they’re sick or abnormal or sinners. Hearing those voices drives home what a difference the site makes, every day, for hundreds of teens.
What surprised me about Children 404 is how positive it is. Yes, things are terribly hard now, but these amazingly brave souls are truly making a difference, changing hearts and minds. Not just queer ones, either: in an April screening of the movie in Moscow, the audience successfully resisted protesters’ and police’s attempts to shut the event down. To the straight audience members, this was a wake-up call that the hate is very real, and it does affect them too.
In the post-film Q&A, director Askold Kurov told us of more happy endings: Pasha is now in Toronto, and doing well in his studies. There’s been an uptick in refugee claims from Russia by GLBT people, but it looks like they’ve all been accepted. And best of all, the site’s legal troubles are over: the charge of containing homosexual propaganda that was laid against it, has been dismissed. They’ll keep on helping queer teens for a while to come.
Hope springs eternal. Russia will need a lot of it, but it looks like some people are moving it in the right direction.