Children 404, a Russian-made documentary about Russian LGBTQ children and youth, is at the heart of a fundraising campaign, and North American scholars and activists are working to help the anonymous filmmakers make it a reality.
Windy City Times was able to speak to one of the filmmakers, on condition of anonymity, in an exclusive interview about the project, as well as those working with on the campaign from Montreal, Canada.
In June, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law a bill that forbids "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations to minors." The law is, by most accounts, both broad and unclear, and LGBTQ activists work in fear of censorship or worse.
According to Bloomberg, "The law introduces fines of 4,000 rubles ( $122 ) to 5,000 rubles for individuals and 10 times those figures for public officials found guilty" and "fines for individuals who use mass media or the Internet to propagate homosexuality to minors rise to as much as 100,000 rubles."
This puts filmmakers, media professionals and even teachers and healthcare workers in a bind, because any information construed as supportive, which does not render homosexuality pathological or diseased, can be punished under the law.
On their Indiegogo campaign, which ends Nov. 14, the filmmakers state that LGBTQ young people are now defenseless because of this "gay propaganda" law.
Speaking with Windy City Times, the filmmaker described the process of putting the film together. They [we use gender-neutral pronouns here to prevent any possibility of identifying them] are friends with Ryan Conrad, part-time faculty and a Ph.D. candidate in sexuality studies at Concordia University in Montreal, and asked him for assistance in raising funds for the film ( they cannot legally do so in Russia ) this fall. Conrad is also a filmmaker, and set about putting together a group that could coordinate a fundraising campaign from Canada.
Conrad was joined by Thomas Waugh, a renowned gay film historian and Concordia Research Chair in Sexual Representation and Documentary; Ezra Winton, part-time faculty at Concordia and director of programming at Cinema Politica and Svetla Turnin, the co-founder and executive director of Cinema Politica ( a non-profit that organises regular cinema screenings and discussions in Montreal ).
The co-directors of the film conceived it about a year ago, at a public event that featured opponents of homosexuality. It was there that they met Pasha, now an 18-year-old, who was at the time experiencing harassment and intimidation from fellow high-schoolers; the trailer for the film, seen on the Indiegogo page, shows scenes where his fellow students openly refer to him using the Russian equivalent of "faggot."
Such open and unmediated expressions of anti-gay sentiment are the norm in Russia, and the filmmaker said that its pervasiveness and what they saw at the rally and heard from Pasha compelled them to make a film. Pasha, a central figure in the documentary, is now about to begin school in Toronto, but many more children and youth in Russia still feel the effects of everyday harassment, as well as the pain of having their families reject them.
Yet, despite these odds, Russian LGBTQ youth are also mobilizing of their own accord, and one of the most popular venues for them is a social network group named "Children 404: We Exist." 404 is the Internet's error code that pops up when a page doesn't existthe name was meant to evoke the fact that, for all intents and purposes, LGBTQ Russian children and youth are not supposed to exist. The filmmakers have met the young founder of the group, and described her as a "very interesting character" who also put them in touch with several of the film's seventeen subjects. They derived the name of their documentary from the Internet group.
The filmmaker said they and their co-director are determined to complete the film, despite any threat to their safety. They also emphasized that they're far from reckless and have obtained legal counsel to make sure they do everything by the book, to prevent authorities from arbitrarily blocking them. The law is sufficiently broad and ambiguous that it's unlikely they will be arrested or worse, but they are taking every precaution.
They plan, upon completion, to release the film over the Internet to ensure maximum exposure.
For the Canadian supporters of the film, its creation speaks to the need for establishing solidarity between LGBTQ people without pathologizing oppressed minorities as helpless. Speaking to WCT by phone from Montreal, Conrad said that he initiated the funding project because of his friendship with one of the filmmakers. "I'm suspicious of the call for the global gay solidarity stuff," he said, pointing out that it often assumes that LGBTQ people anywhere but in the United States, Canada or the United Kingdom are helpless.
"So much of the information about the Russian context comes from the West, and is presented by people with no real contacts. It's important to support LGBTQ Russians in a way that lets them talk about their own experiences, without being paternalizing or patronizing."
Conrad pointed out that the Internet group was "self-organized by young LGBTQ people in Russia, which shows their tenacity and resourcefulness. We don't need to save them but support them, and this film helps to do that. At one point, the filmmakers approached a Russian-speaking psychologist who didn't know a lot about LGBTQ youth in Russia. After being interviewed and learning more, he's now offering Russian youth consultations via Skype."
Thomas Waugh has written several books on queer documentary and cinema, and spoke with Windy City Times about why the group has thrown its support behind the film. On the phone with WCT, he said, "The four of us met one of the two and got to know them fairly well. We're very much inspired by their commitment, resourcefulness and passion and also by the dangers that they were and are incurring. We thought this was a way we could participate in this movement of resistance to the homophobic and xenophobic regime."
Waugh spoke of the history of such films, pointing out that documentary films have long been part of a tradition of political resistance. In the mid-1970s in India, Anand Patwardhan's film Prisoners of Conscience exposed the civil-rights abuses of Indira Gandhi's regime during the notorious Emergency period. In queer films, the parallel, he said, was with "underground erotic queer films in the pre-Stonewall era. Some might not understand that work as politics, but sexual expression was definitely an idiom of resistance and opposition during the post-war period in the USA."
Pointing to films like Born This Waythe recent documentary about the underground gay and lesbian community in Cameroonas well as the surge in underground gay-porn films from the People's Republic of China, Waugh emphasized that "sexual activity has in itself a political valence" in such contexts. He continued, "There's a parallel here with the situation in such so-called developed countries like Russia."
Waugh also said that supporting the film is especially meaningful given that "the budget is very modest, compared to the some of the very high-profile queer documentaries made recently; it's not a lot of money and it's really something that can help these folks put together this work that will have a huge impact in Russia and abroad. It's about assembling a kind of civil society disobedience and resistance."
For their part, the Russian filmmakers continue to drum up support and funds for the documentary, and have been touched by what they call the "great support" they've received so far. According to the filmmaker, money has come from Russia and all around the word, and there has been a lot of support from the LGBTQ community.
They said that their hope for the film is that it will give LGBTQ Russian children and youth a voice, that they will no longer be left invisible. "I hope this film can change the situation in Russia, because one of the problems for young Russian homosexuals is that people do not know they exist," one of the filmmakers stated.
In particular, they said they hope that the film will help initiate larger conversations in Russia but especially within families; they are especially moved to make the film because of how often Russian parents kick their children out of their homes for being LGBTQ. Sometimes, the children are taken to mental hospitals because homosexuality is considered a sickness.
In an follow-up email, only minutes after the conversation with this reporter, the filmmaker wrote to us about getting a warning from the mother of one of the subjects, telling them she was going to go to the police.
The Indiego campaign can be found at www.indiegogo.com/projects/children-404 .
Disclosure: This reporter is a friend of both Conrad and Waugh.