Last summer, things looked bad for gay Russians. The national assembly passed a law in June 2013 effectively banning public discussion of gay rights, and vigilantes began hunting gay teenagers and torturing them, then posting the videos on YouTube. Several months later, the Sochi Olympics shone a harsh spotlight on gay life in Russia, but what happened after the activists, reporters and camera crews went home?
The Olympics are over, and the news has moved on to more pressing problems, such as Russia’s new hobby of dismantling Ukraine. But in Russia, the authorities have not relented in their campaign against their gay citizens: in July they rejected all parade routes proposed by Pride organizers in St Petersburg, then arrested a gay man for carrying a sign police said violated the anti-gay-propaganda law. What are gay Russians supposed to do?
The two Russian films showing at Vancouver’s Queer Film Festival this year send one inescapable message: the only thing for Russian gay people to do is leave, as quickly as possible.
Pavel Loparev and Askold Kurov’s documentary Children 404 follows the eponymous web forum, a place for Russian gay teenagers to support each other in a hostile society. Founder Elena Klimova faces government pressure to shut the site down while fielding dozens of emails a day from children disowned by their parents, abused by their classmates and ridiculed by their teachers. Meanwhile, teenager Pasha prepares to leave Russia for school in Toronto.
Children 404 feels like footage from a war zone. (Watch our video interview with one of the profiled youth, above.) Shaky hidden cameras show the non-stop casual abuse heaped on Pasha when he steps outside, and we watch him hunch into protective indifference under the barrage. The subjects look like they got three hours of sleep the night before being interviewed and talk about their lives with sardonic, defeated acceptance.
There are, of course, moments of hope. Pasha and his friends gather outside a suicidal boy’s window to shout slogans of hope and reassurance. One woman becomes a surrogate mother to homeless gay boys, rescuing them from the freezing streets of Moscow.
Pasha soon realizes that he will not be able to lead a normal, happy life in Russia. Klimova says she will stay on and fight for gay rights, but admits it is hard to blame the many gay couples looking for the fastest exit.
“Almost all the couples I meet through the internet are thinking of leaving the country. Right now, right at this moment,” she says. “They are all too scared.”
In Sergey Taramaev and Lyuba Lvova’s fictional film Winter Journey, budding opera singer Eric (Alexey Frandetti) becomes fascinated with a violent and unpredictable thief, Lekha (Evgeniy Tkachuk), who steals his phone. Eric is stuck between the rigid world of opera and his own awkward homosexuality and spirals into drug- and vodka-fuelled oblivion, Lekha in tow. That the object of Eric’s fantasies is a boorish thug speaks to the strangling forces of Russian hypermasculinity.
Like Children 404, Winter Journey’s most pervasive theme is escape, played out through Eric’s search for anesthesia. Faced with the impossible contradictions of his life, Eric escapes first into alcohol and then into obsession with a stranger. He even tries to escape Russia to Mumbai with Lekha and, failing, dives finally into fantasy and self-destruction. Winter Journey is worth watching for its blend of chilling cinematography and music alone.
Children 404 ends on a note of hope, with Pasha taking off for Toronto and a new and better life. Winter Journey ends in a moment of despair, overtaken by the bitter Russian winter. The fiction, while beautiful and insightful, does not live up to the stark brutality of the documentary.
“History proves that things change for the better. So we have hope,” Klimova says defiantly. You don’t have to speak Russian to know that even she struggles to believe it.