I feel I am human.
– Justin/Pasha on living in Toronto for the past 6 months
The second movie I saw yesterday was Children 404. Another heavy movie, but one well worth the watch. A film by Pavel Loparev and Askold Kurov, and co-presented by Cinema Politica, Children 404 tells the story of LGBTQ youth in Russia, a population made even more invisible by the country’s recent “gay propaganda” law. The film focuses on the stories told through the Children 404 project – an online community started by Elena Klimova, a Russian journalist who wrote a series of articles on LGBTQ youth in Russia last March. It is called Children 404 after the “Error 404 – Page Not Found” on the Internet, the idea being that these children are invisible in Russia, that some people don’t believe they even exist. So they are reclaiming their identity – bolding proclaiming “We’re here and we’re queer” (though maybe not in so many words).
In these months after the Sochi Olympics, the situation of LGBTQ rights in Russia has fallen somewhat off the radar. Even when it was on the international agenda, rarely did LGBTQ-identified youth have a voice in the mainstream media. And so it was incredibly interesting and important to hear from these youth themselves. We heard from a boy who lives in Sochi and describes it as a very homophobic city, who is humiliated every day and had to move from his mother’s house to another district where no one knew him. According to the directors, he doesn’t think anything has changed since the Olympics.
There were stories of youth being thrown out of their homes, of mothers telling their children that they wished they’d miscarried rather than give birth to a sick monster like them. There were stories of social workers and therapists blaming the LGBTQ youth for their own harassment – telling them, for example, that it is because they hate the homophobes that the homophobes hate them back. And that if they loved them, they would receive love in return <insert collective groan from the audience>. Elena and her partner share a bit of their story as well, and about how they were both fired from their job when their relationship became known.
The film also follows Pasha, a 19-year-old young man who is planning to move to Toronto to learn English, become a journalist, and realize his dream of having a family with a male partner. The scene where he sings the Canadian national anthem in his broken English (“We stand on guard for free!!” he sings joyously) inside Lenin’s Mausoleum is one of my favourites.
Pasha’s family is one of the only supportive ones we see in the film. His mother is incredibly loving and protective, and even his somewhat racist (they talk about him having “black children” with a “black woman” in Toronto, who they will then take fishing, etc) grandparents know about his sexuality and actively love him just the same. It made me tear up. A lot made me tear up.
But what really got me was when the Q&A reached its second or third question and it was revealed that Pasha was in the audience, as many of us suspected and hoped. As he came up to the stage, he received a long standing ovation. It was powerful.
He now somewhat jokingly goes by “Justin” as well, an homage to Justin Bieber (who Pasha mournfully refers to as “straight” in the film).
The words “fag” and “faggot” are used quite liberally throughout the film, as we witness the harassment taking place firsthand. It’s a jarring word, and one that I don’t usually encounter in everyday life. One of the most incredible things Pasha does during the film is create a poster regarding a social living index (I’m unsure which one he uses) that reads something along the lines of “Russia is 66th and you can’t be gay here. Canada is 2nd and gays can get married. Maybe we should start focusing on the important things?” He then stands in what I believe is the Red Square in Moscow, enduring the ensuing taunts. One man spits on him and calls him that horrible F word; both are brought to the police station and both are eventually released, Pasha believes, because the police did not want to deal with the other guy.
Many of the questions during the Q&A involved what we could do, here in Toronto, for LGBTQ youth in Russia. All three men – the directors and Justin/Pasha – said that talking about this issue is the most important thing we can do. “You can help us by talking about it,” Justin/Pasha explains. “The problem of children 404 is that society wants to pretend they don’t exist, so we need to bring them out into the open.”
Justin/Pasha will be at World Pride this summer. He is one of the lucky ones, able to get out of Russia. As he repeatedly tells the audience, it’s impossible for 99% of these teenagers to move to a country like Canada. They need money, they need a visa. He hopes that the Canadian government will learn about the issues facing Children 101 and will begin to support them in immigrating.
Last night was the international premier; it was an honour to be one of the first audiences to see this impressive documentary. It did have a small showing in Moscow earlier, the directors told us. It must’ve been only days ago, as they also said they finished the film only the week before. As the screening in Moscow was about to start, Orthodox activists broke into the room with weapons and police, trying to find minors and accuse the non-minors there of gay propaganda. The police checked everyone’s documents; there were no minors there, and the audience chanted “We want to see the film” while the search went on. The directors don’t know what the repercussions will be for having produced this film; they don’t know if it will become banned in Russia. Children 404 became available online last night in Russia, after the screening took place in Toronto. Hopefully many Russians will see it; hopefully it will have an impact.
As Elena said in the film, changes in society’s viewpoints are inevitable. 60 years ago, things were much different in the USA, she says, referring to racial segregation in the South. “And what is 60 years? Only 2 generations!” she exclaims. Elena sees a future as an elderly woman, when children will wonder in amazement at the idea that gay people were discriminated against in her country. Her hope is inspiring – I too believe it is inevitable, but for the sake of the Russian youth struggling today, I pray it comes sooner rather than later.
Check it out – there’s three more screenings!
Nelson Mandela. Synonymous with reconciliation. Forgiveness. A grandfatherly figure, laughing and smiling (though perhaps not as much as Desmond Tutu).
Freeing South Africa. Creating the Rainbow Nation.
A comforting narrative. Not a controversial figure. Not someone who used violence to reach his goals, who was labelled a terrorist by the American, and many other, governments. Not someone who said that our freedom is bound up in the freedom of the Palestinians.
The second film I saw at the Hot Docs festival 2014 was titled Nelson Mandela: The Myth & Me, also known as A Letter to Nelson Mandela. This was not a love letter to Mandela. It was a critical look at the myth that rose up once he was released from jail and went on to become South Africa’s first Black president. As one of the interviewees put it, he wasn’t that genteel, benign grandfatherly figure. “He was cold.”
Because the reality is that Mandela was the epitome of the phrase “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” He’s been called both during his lifetime, and he’s made the epic arc from being widely viewed as a terrorist to now being overwhelmingly considered a saint; in fact, few people would argue otherwise, at least in polite company.
This film, however, argues a more nuanced perspective of the man behind the myth. As write and director Khalo Matabane said during the Q&A after the screening, quoting the incredible Chimamanda Adichie, “It’s dangerous to have a single narrative. Mandela suffers from that, from the Western media as well as the media in South Africa.” For Matabane, this film was meant to provide multiple alternative narratives to the story of a man who is often only portrayed through a single lens.
And so he interviewed many diverse subjects – ranging from leftist activists to right-wing Conservative politicians (side note: when Henry Kissinger appeared on the screen, I wanted to boo and hiss. Same when Colin Powell described himself as essentially a peace activist who knew when to use hard power to get back to the bigger goal of peace. I did restrain myself). He interviewed people who believed that forgiveness was the ultimate goal – that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa went about things the right way, and that Madiba succeeded in transitioning from an armed idealist to a politician who could birth and cultivate a healthy, thriving democracy.
But there were other interview subjects who saw things differently. Who saw things similarly to the way I saw them when I visited South Africa two and a half years ago. They spoke of the myth of Mandela as a hero and a god (which was telling, as only gods can forgive, as one interviewee put it). And that he’d bought into that myth and even encouraged it. One woman, who’s caption simply read “Feminist” below her name (and apologies but I don’t remember the name and there’s no list of interview subjects online that I can find), spoke of how the reality on the ground was much different from the myth. The myth says that South Africans are free, that they are so much better off than they were under Apartheid, when they were dying in the streets. “But depending on who you are,” she said, “people still are dying in the streets.”
South Africa is a country of extreme contrasts. It’s the most advanced African country when it comes to LGBTQ rights, and yet Black lesbians know the fear of corrective rape all too well. It has one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, yet it is also one of the most unequal societies in the world. This was starkly illustrated when I was flying into Cape Town from London at the end of 2011. Flying into the airport, when we got low enough that I could really see the houses, I saw grandiose homes, nearly every single one with a swimming pool. Then the homes became more structured, more box-like, and there were no more bursts of blue in their backyards. Finally, closest to the airport, was the township.
It’s been twenty years – almost to the day (April 27, 1994) – since South Africa had its first democratic elections (here’s a good article about the changes, good and bad, and what hasn’t changed, since the end of Apartheid). Yet the country is still widely divided along racial lines. The poorest of the poor are overwhelmingly Black, with the richest of the rich still being overwhelmingly White. This is seen in terms of land. From when Apartheid ended until the end of 2011, when I visited the country, less than 7% of the land had been transferred. Rich White landowners own the big farms, and poorer, Black small scale farmers are landless and continue to suffer under a similar unequal system as they did under Apartheid. (Side note: there are organizations like Surplus People Project working for land reform. See my blog post from November 2011)
As some young people interviewed in the film commented (and this was filmed when he was still alive), Mandela never goes to bed hungry. Mandela is fed because of them, they argue. Another interviewee says its easy to forgive when you’re the president. But what about the woman in the hut whose son went missing and who is inconsolable every time she realizes that the footsteps she hears outside her home are not that of her long lost son returning? We are being presumptuous, insulting even, if we think we can comfort her.
This brings up the issue of forced reconciliation, which is somewhat addressed in the film. As one interviewee analogizes, “If someone steals your watch and asks for forgiveness but is still wearing your watch, what good is that?” It creates a culture of impunity, not one of reconciliation, he argues.
What good is forgiveness if it is coerced? I am very uncomfortable with forgiveness narratives, especially around genocide or ethnic cleansing or system human rights abuses. The 20th anniversary of the start of the Rwandan genocide was earlier this month, and there were countless media portrayals of perpetrators standing with their victims in solidarity and forgiveness. I remember when I was completing my Masters degree and seeing a short video of a Rwandan woman serving food to the man who had killed her entire family, in a move that the narrator clearly viewed to be inspirational. But for me, there’s a problem with that. Not least because, when I visited Rwanda in 2009, I heard time and time again, “We have no choice but to forgive.”
In the TRC in South Africa, there were times during the hearings when forgiveness was definitely coerced, or at least strongly encouraged. I heard one story, during my Political Reconciliation class at LSE (taught by Dr. Claire Moon who’s written extensively on South Africa) of a victim who came to tell her story even though her perpetrators refused to appear. Yet still she was asked, repeatedly, by the Commissioners, “But you forgive them, right?”
That’s why it was so interesting that Matabane included the story of Charity Kondile, who refuses to forgive the man who killed her son, Sizwe. “I was looking for an alternative narrative to the Black woman who cries at the TRC and forgives,” Matabane explained during the Q&A. “I was trying to be as honest as possible in a world where everything, even documentaries, is a performance.”
I couldn’t help but think back to the time last month I spent at the TRC in Edmonton. In this Canadian context, I didn’t encounter that kind of “cult of forgiveness” that has appeared in other reconciliation processes. While we may still argue whether justice is being done in this care, or any of the cases discussed in this blog post, the Canadian TRC process is much more victim/survivor focused. It is about survivors telling their stories, and having institutional perpetrators apologize to them. Very rarely did individual perpetrators appear before the Commission, although it did happen. Of course, concepts of forgiveness and reconciliation were discussed and promoted at the TRC. But I never felt a coercive element; survivors were allowed to be angry and to remain angry. To tell their story as they saw it. Reconciliation is a process. As Elder Lorna Standingready said to me one day in Edmonton, the residential school system operated for over 100 years. We can’t expect it all be fixed in the few years of the TRC’s mandate.
But back to Matabane’s movie. Watch the trailer below. And then make sure you see the full feature film as soon as you can.