Landing in Perm…

After the chaos of last minute flights, visas and ordering equipment, we finally touched down. On our first day of filming, January 7th – Russian Orthodox Christmas, it was -36°C. We were having difficulties keeping the camera warm enough to keep rolling. The battery quickly drains in these conditions. At this point we hadn’t located the teenagers so we spent time getting establishing shots of the city and the Christmas church service. The next day we found the group living in one of the dilapidated houses they had occupied the previous summer. Normally during the winter they move to somewhere warmer like the basement of a block of flats or an old bathhouse which has hot water pipes running through it but as these basements were getting sealed up by the authorities, they had no choice.

They give the place they live the nickname ‘Skazka’ which is Russian for fairytale. On a number of occasions I asked them why they would call it that to which they would laugh and smile and explain that they live a fairytale life – that the house looks like something out of a fairytale and that they like to give each other fairytale-like nicknames. Often you see their inner childlike innocence shining through – perhaps as a way of dealing with the horrible reality of living in such a dreadful house.

No hot water, no electricity, no furniture, no door, no carpet and boarded up windows. There was a simple wood burning stove consisting of a hole in the wall where rubbish and wood scraps could be burnt for heat. The floor was covered in rubbish, used needles and empty bottles. It was very dark, apart from the occasional candle when money stretched that far. The worst part was the odour which consisted of cigarette smoke, wood polish and the outside toilet (anywhere which was a few steps from the entrance).

Choosing our characters

Over the next few weeks we worked every day – mainly following four of the teenagers. These included Kolya, Ksusha, Irina and Denis.

Kolya was obviously the leader of the pack. He comes from a broken family and first discovered the freedom of living on the streets aged seven when he met some homeless children at the market.

Ksusha is the mother hen of the group. She has been living on and off the streets since she was seven. Her mother was murdered when she was a child and her father re-married several years later. Due to poor relations with both her abusive father and her stepmother, she ran away from home where she found other youngsters living on the streets.

Irina at first appears to be one of the weaker members of the “family”. When she was a baby, her mother was convicted of double homicide and her father neglected her. When she was seven she was taken into institutional care as her father was deemed unfit as a parent. She struggled to come to terms with her new life in an orphanage and regularly ran away. As a result she was often placed in a psychiatric hospital for ‘treatment’ (electric shock therapy, forced medication and confinement), which only agitated her frail mental condition and resulted in her running away more frequently.

Denis is the weakest link of the group. He is handicapped because his fingers and toes were amputated due to frostbite. He was often so under the influence of drugs, that it was a wonder how he could ever escape this lifestyle. Throughout the film, however, we slowly discovered the pure nature of his character and the immense burden he had to face every day. Since he is the only invalid of the group he is also the No.1 breadwinner for the “family”. His begging pays for the alcohol, drug and food supply of the entire unit.

Choosing the stories

A few of the stories we followed included Kolya visiting a human rights organisation because of injuries he suffered whilst in police detention. We visited Ksusha’s friend who lives on his own in a tent between two hot water pipes. Ksusha’s abdomen had become swollen and she was convinced she was pregnant. Alek became very ill, on the verge of death, so we took him to hospital where he soon escaped. Towards the end of our trip and after quite a brutal encounter with the police, Irina told us that she wanted to get out and try rehab. With help from Love’s Bridge, Irina managed to book a place at a rehab centre which was isolated miles away from the city. Although this was a born again Christian centre, it seemed like her best hope of breaking free.

This is exactly how we left Perm, with Kolya planning on admitting himself to hospital, Irina in rehab and Ksusha making plans to leave Skazka after her pregnancy scare…