“Children like me simply don’t exist for them.”
With these ominous words, spoken over a crackling telephone connection, Children 404 draws to a close; its unsettling conclusion signaled by an image of the Russian landscape fading into obscurity, scrubbed out by a layer of broken cloud seen from above, through an airplane window.
The sequence is dense, thick, and pointed, condensing into a single frame the themes of loss, secrecy and abandonment that texture Pavel Loparev and Askold Kurov’s deeply affecting new documentary, which explores the impact of Vladimir Putin’s ‘gay propaganda bill’ on the lives of LGBT teens in Russia.
Stitched together from fragments of shaky hand-held video overlaid with lossy audio gleaned from phone conversations and Skype calls, Loparev and Kurov’s film is an unsteady and discontinuous document of Children 404 (so named in reference to the 404 ‘file not found’ Web protocol), an online support network for Russian LGBT teens started by journalist Lena Kilmova in March of 2013. Throughout the film, we hear the disembodied voices of forty-five Russian teens affiliated with the group, most of them anonymous, recounting their experiences of harassment, bullying, assault and secrecy in Putin’s Russia.
Already harrowing, these stories are made all the more powerful by Loparev and Kurov, who masterfully ply the dynamics of presence, absence, and mediation to emphasize how the Russian state’s hard line on homosexuality pushes young queers to—and often beyond—the brink of intelligibility.
The shuddering audio track serves as a grim accompaniment to images that are themselves barely discernible; images that shake, glitch, and tumble into and out of focus, images that often document nothing more than austere-looking bedrooms, unnamed urban parks, and empty corridors. These are spaces emptied of bodies; inhabited instead by their mediated traces, those crackling, strained voices that come from so many unnamed and unseen elsewheres.
In those rare moments where the camera does manage to steady itself, we encounter startling instances of homophobic hate speech: young people spat on and threatened in public by passers-by, openly taunted by their classmates, ejected from their own schools by administrators who declare their classrooms free of gays and lesbians.
There are, of course, moments of care, as well: instances of young people supporting one another at tremendous risk to their own safety, small pockets where alternative forms of kinship and family seem possible. But these moments are few and far between, overwritten by the sense that these young people have already fallen away from us, that they already inhabit some low-resolution realm where personhood is undone and consumed.
In the end, Children 404 does not wince from the gravity of its subject matter. It makes room for agency and resistance, yet it is more visceral and guttural than speculative; an urgent, distressing, and necessary denunciation of the here-and-now of state-sponsored erasure.
CHILDREN 404 had its world premiere at this year’s Hot Docs. Check the festival’s site for upcoming screenings.