The number 404 has become synonymous with absence. Known to many as the code for “page not found” on the internet, it has taken on a special meaning in Russia. Elena Klimova, a journalist and activist based in the regional city of Nizhny Tagil in the Urals, used it for her online support group for LGBT teenagers in Russia — Children 404. She set up the group in 2013 to provide a safe online space for LGBT teenagers to come together after authorities passed the “gay propaganda” law in March of that year.
In response to the international attention Klimova’s group has received, Russian documentary filmmakers Askold Kurov and Pavel Loparev decided to tell the story of the LGBT teenagers in the group. Their film, also called Children 404, was financed through a crowd-funding campaign which raised $10,000; it is the first time Russian directors have tackled this controversial issue since the law was passed in 2013. The 70-minute documentary focuses on the story of Pasha, a teenager planning to leave for a better life in Canada, but also contains testimony — often given anonymously over Skype — from 45 of those LGBT teenagers.
The Calvert Journal spoke to director Askold Kurov at the film’s second public screening in Russia, at the Tarkovsky International Film Festival in Ivanovo, a city 250 miles north-east of Moscow.
TCJ: What led you to make this film? What is your background in documentary filmmaking?
Askold Kurov: It was quite unexpected actually. I worked for a long time as a package designer but then I suddenly started to discover more about myself and I came to really dislike the job. I decided to study documentary filmmaking at the documentary film school in Moscow run by Maria Razbezhkina and Mikhail Ugarov. I was part of the directorial team of Winter Go Away, a film about the protest movement in Russia during the 2012 presidential elections, and then made my own documentary, Leninland, about the people working in the Lenin Museum in Gorky outside Moscow.
“Only when I started making this film did I realise how strong my own inner homophobia was”
Last year Pavel Loparev and myself decided to make Children 404. It was very personal for me and for Pavel to make this film. For me, it was very important because I was a teenager in the Soviet Union in Uzbekistan and I didn’t have any information about LGBT issues and I didn’t know that it might be normal to be gay or that there are even other gay people in the world. I understand these children when they talk about homophobia and inner homophobia — when you can’t accept your own sexuality. Only when I started making this film did I realise how strong my own inner homophobia was.
TCJ: How did you go about finding the characters you feature in the film, in particular your main character?
AK: I found Pasha purely by chance. I was filming for another project at a big rally for opposition politician Alexei Navalny and I saw Pasha walking in the crowd with a Navalny poster. He looked like a smart young guy. At first I thought he was a political activist, but when I started to talk to him, I found out he was an LGBT activist as well. I was lucky. It was a sign that I was doing the right thing.
TCJ: What about the other, anonymous characters?
AK: At first we asked Elena Klimova to send an email to all the teenagers in the group, asking if any of them would be willing to talk to us. Seventy five children agreed. However, when we were on our way to a small town in the Urals to film this one guy, we spoke to his mother on the phone and it turned out we’d been talking to her all along. It was a trick. After that, we decided it was too dangerous for the children to meet us in person without talking to them first, so we started castings by Skype and by phone. When we had 45 anonymous interviews with the LGBT teenagers, we realised that the material from Skype and phone calls was enough: the stories were already so intimate and strong. When they are in their bedrooms they feel safe. We then found ways to shoot videos and decided to let the teenagers film themselves on their own cameras, capturing their spaces, their bedrooms and their journeys to school. The teenagers became co-directors of the film.
TCJ: How did the screening in Ivanovo go?
It was very different from the first screening in Moscow where we were attacked by religious activists. They were backed up by armed police who interrupted the screening and checked all the identity documents hoping to find someone under the age of eighteen so they could shut the screening down. They didn’t, and when we resumed the screening, it was very powerful.
“The Soviet Union is coming back but without the Soviet ideology”
The screening in Ivanovo was very good — no religious activists and no police — but it was not as powerful. That said, there was an amazing moment after the screening: a teenager stood up and thanked me for making the film. And then his mother stood up and said the same. I presume he was gay and his mother had accepted him.
TCJ: And now you’re showing the film online for free?
AK: Yes that’s correct. We understood that there would be no chance we could broadcast the film on TV in Russia, or have many cinema screenings. But we want people in Russia to see this film, especially the parents of LGBT children, so we’ve put in on YouTube. You can’t see it outside Russia but we’re having a successful run at festivals outside of Russia at the moment.
TCJ: What do you think the future holds for Russia?
AK: I had this slogan when I was making Leninland: “When the past is the future”. This is what I experienced in the museum: the past coming back. The past is coming back, but it’s transformed and very strange; the Soviet Union is coming back but without the Soviet ideology. Everything we hated 20 years ago, everything we struggled with, is coming back. It seems like we’ve forgotten everything, forgotten how bad it was. I’m preparing myself to face this return to slavery.