Was it possible to truly ‘enjoy’ Cinema Politica’s most recent showing at the Northern Stage? In retelling the stories of LGBT+ youth in a country that still calls homosexuality an illness, Children 404 can be hard to watch, the almost omnipresence of homophobia from legislation to the playground soul-numbing. Yet there were moments in the film that got the entire screening laughing. Children 404’s kids choose to be loud, irreverent, and hilarious. Though what happens to them is horrifying, it is their protest by positivity that keeps you watching: the will of a community to keep its members heard as their country demands they be silent.
The Children 404 project, in brief, is an anonymised social network for Russian LGBT+ youth that acts as both social space and support group for a collective some Russians don’t even believe exist, hence the name: child not found. The film is assembled from footage and voice clips contributed by its members, largely following the story of a gay college student’s final weeks in Russia before studying in Canada.
“Despite the harrowing events of the film, the film never feels hopeless”
Interspersing these vignettes are interviews with Elena Klimova, the journalist who founded the site back in 2013. She discusses the ethos that led to the creation of the site, and the legal struggle of keeping such a safe space open in the light of Russia’s recently instated propaganda laws on LGBT+ representation, which forbid anything construable as ‘propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships’ to be circulated around young children, ostensibly to protect ‘traditional family values’.
It’s the shadow of ‘the Law’ that is the spectre over Children 404, the feeling of taboo and invisibility rather than explicit brutality. This isn’t a graphic film: though it’s alluded to, no violence actually happens on-screen. But the validation, the seeming acknowledgement ‘they’re sick or something’ precipitates this abuse and unadulterated violence. Stories are told of children ousted into homelessness by their parents, a boy locked in his room by a mother pretending he’s ill, botched suicide attempts. It’s harrowing, especially in a country that, according to Putin, allows LGBT+ people to ‘live in peace.’
And yet in spite of this, the feeling is never one of hopelessness. There is validation both inside and outside of the LGBT+ community: for example, a woman who has taken in two homeless teens on the run. And at the heart of this is Klimova herself, whose sheer bloody-mindedness and dedication to ensuring Children 404 stays open in the face of – what would turn out to be multiple – lawsuits acts as a brilliant abstract of the whole film. As long as there are sympathetic ears, there is hope.
Following the showing, there was a brief Q&A session with Radzhana Buyantueva, a former Politics student at Newcastle, about the reality of the LGBT+ movement as a whole in Russia. As eye-opening as it was horrifying, topics covered included the ‘doublethink’ about the LGBT+ community endemic in modern Russian society, unpunished vigilante action and the difficulty of effective activism with an unsympathetic government.