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“Children 404” shows how Russia’s anti-gay law makes life miserable for LGBT teens

SAN DIEGO, California – “Children 404” is a heartbreaking documentary about how Russia’s new “gay propaganda” law is terrorizing LGBT teens and emboldening homophobes to openly show their anger and hatred toward sexual minorities.

But the film also shows the courage of some LGBT Russian teens, who defy authorities and stand up for their rights in small, engaging ways. About 45 LGBT teens bravely tell their stories, mostly through anonymous interviews and amateur videos about their daily lives and struggles.

The documentary, written and directed by Askold Kurov and Pavel Loparev, will be shown at 7 pm Thursday, Sept. 4, at the Reading Town Square 14 Cinemas in San Diego, California. Simultaneous screenings will be held in five other U.S. cities on that night as part of the "Eye on World Issues" series.

Ken Williams, Editor in Chief of San Diego Gay & Lesbian News and the GLBT News Network, will host a question-and-answer session afterward.

The documentary's premiere on April 24, 2014 in St. Petersburg, Russia was marred by a vigilante group of about 10 people who searched the crowd of about 200 people as they looked for minors, according to Queer Russia. Additional police officers, dressed in riot gear, showed up and blocked the exits. Detectives took names, wrote down passport information and allegedly confiscated a copy of the documentary.

The film gets its title from Children 404, an online forum for teens who are ostracized for being LGBT in Russia. And the number 404 comes from an error message used to indicate to Internet users that a server cannot find information that was requested, providing a perfect metaphor for the dire situation in Russia.

The filmmakers estimate that there are about 2.5 million LGBT children and teenagers in Russia who are being impacted by the homophobic law.

President Vladmir Putin, who is reviled around the world for his homophobic laws and illegal “intervention” and land grab in neighboring Ukraine, gets no props for his part in allowing Russian lawmakers to pass laws that forbid “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations to minors.” Nobody in authority – teachers, leaders, politicians, psychologists and so forth – can discuss LGBT issues with minors. They cannot discuss how it is OK to be LGBT or that being gay is healthy, not sick, sinful or abnormal.

As a result, the homophobic law enables and gives cover to the haters. The deeply conservative Orthodox Church of Russia preaches that being gay is a sin and abnormal. The uptight Russian society, known for its homophobia, turns its back on LGBT issues. Rolled together, it creates a climate of intolerance, harassment, verbal and physical abuse, and anti-gay violence.

One of the first people to be prosecuted under the law is lesbian activist Elena Klimova, who created Children 404 as a way for LGBT teens to share their stories in a safe environment on the Internet.

Klimova’s court case concluded Feb. 27, 2014 with a dismissal after the judge ruled that the Children 404 website and publications did not contain “gay propaganda.”

Both Klimova and her girlfriend, who are journalists, had already lost their jobs as newspaper editors when they were dragged out of the closet and forced to resign after the new law went into effect.

"Pasha" flees Russia after new law goes into effect

The documentary also focuses on “Pasha,” an 18-year-old blond who is leaving Russia for Toronto, Canada, where he plans to study English and earn a journalism degree. Pasha tells of how he was bullied and ridiculed at school, and then goes with a cameraman to show how that happens in schools and on the street. He returns to his old high school, where he gets a warm welcome from a former teacher but a lot of hate from students who recognize him as a gay activist. He is eventually tossed off the campus under threat of arrest. Later, he uses markers to make a sign in support of gay marriage and gay rights, then goes to a public square where he silently holds up his message. He is greeted with derogatory remarks and anti-gay slurs. One homophobe gets verbally abusive. When a butch female cop shows up, Pasha is told to roll up his sign or face arrest. He asks the cop to arrest one of his abusive detractors, and the cop takes them both to the police station for questioning. Both men are later freed, and Pasha thinks it is because the police just wanted the incident to blow over.

Gay youth like Pasha share their stories of abuse, bullying and violence. Two young gay guys in the town of Uchta talk about getting kicked out of their homes for being gay, and how they were lucky enough to get a roof over their heads thanks to the kindness of an older woman who lives in a log house in the middle of nowhere.

“Natasha helped us a great deal. She gave us a shelter. We help her with the household in return. And now we face the challenge of finding a proper job and getting a place to live,” the 16-year-old boy says.

He says it becomes a matter of survival on the streets or being lucky enough to find a loose network of allies. “Well, basically, it’s either [living in somebody’s] basements or prostitution,” he adds.

Another group of teens are seen trying to cheer up a gay teen named Gosha, who is suicidal after being relentlessly bullied. They show up outside his home with homemade signs stating that “Love is stronger than hate.” But Gosha’s mom won’t let them speak to her son, and threatens to call authorities when they chant his name and encouraging messages outside the home.

“Children 404” is a very powerful statement about homophobia in Russia. It taps into universal themes of alienation and separation. Your heart will break when a young girl describes being beaten up by other schoolgirls for being in love with another girl, or a student who describes a teacher telling his classmates that gays should be “burned and banished.”

Everything is turned on its head in Russia, including social services. Pasha describes it this way: “The social worker and a psychologist say loads of crap, like this homophobic bullying is entirely my fault, because that’s me, who can’t accept the homophobes.”

The fact that many Russian youth appear to have tablets, laptops and smart phones with Internet connections may be a saving grace. At least they can find like-minded teens on the web to share their misery and their hopes.