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Context (Moscow Times)
February 11-17, 2005
Mean Streets
Moscow's homeless children are in the spotlight at this year's Oscars.
By Anna Malpas

This year, the main Oscar story for Russia has been the failure of homegrown blockbuster "Night Watch" (Nochnoi Dozor) to gain a nomination in the Foreign Language Film category. Meanwhile, a modest Moscow-set documentary has made it into the running for an Oscar without a squeak of publicity from the local media.

Shot by Polish directors Hanna Polak and Andrzej Celinski, "The Children of Leningradsky" tackles a Moscow underworld very different from the fantasy setting of Timur Bekmambetov's film. The 35-minute documentary is a no-holds-barred examination of the city's street children, based on Polak's experiences while living and studying in Moscow.

Now the film, which was shown at the Sundance Film Festival last month, is up for an Academy Award in the Documentary Short Subject category, alongside four movies made in the United States, and Polak hopes that the resulting publicity will attract attention and funds for Moscow's homeless children.

The nomination made her "very happy," Polak said in an e-mail from Los Angeles last week. "I believed it would help to find more help for the children. That is why this movie was made." Polak has joined forces with the Russian Children's Welfare Society, a New York-based charity, to create a fund named after the film. The fund will collect money abroad to open a children's rehabilitation center in the Moscow region.

Katowice-born Polak is studying cinematography at Russia's top film school, VGIK. When she arrived in Moscow, she came face to face with the city's street children.

"I met a group of homeless children while walking through Kursky Station in 1999," she remembered. "I spoke to some of them, [and] they invited me to come again." On taking up the invitation, Polak was "completely shocked" to meet a group of 70 children living on their own.

"I was just crushed. I could not believe that children could live like this," she said. "From that time on, I tried to help them as I could, especially trying to get some of them out of the street. I was trying to convince them that they could live a normal life."

Polak founded a charity called Active Child Aid, which continues to run a nightly soup kitchen at Kursky Station. She also began to take photographs of the children, and from there, it was a logical step to use her film skills to publicize their plight.

"In 2001, I started to film them to show their suffering to other people, and in this way possibly find funds to be able to change the lives of at least some of them," she said.

The film covers the everyday life of a group of homeless children living at Leningradsky Station. Among the heroes are Gennady, now 17, who used to live on the street and then spent some time living in Polak's apartment. The teenager is now in an orphanage, Polak said. He has learned to read and write, and he is in seventh grade at school -- the usual level for 13- to 14-year-olds. A girl featured in the documentary, Yulia, was adopted by a staff member at an orphanage. For many, though, there have been no happy endings.

"Unfortunately, most of the children who are in the movie are in prison," the director stated.

Shortly after the January nomination, the Russia Children's Welfare Society launched the Children of Leningradsky Fund. This fund will raise money to open a short-term hostel in the Moscow region for children who fall through the cracks of Russia's state-run child-care system. Such children include teenage mothers, those without documents and those who are homeless but too old to be in school.

"[Polak] has agreed that since we have the organization here in the States to raise money, the best way is [for donors] to give it to us, and we give it to her, because that way people get a tax deduction, and we've got the resources to book it properly and account for it," Vladimir Fekula, the charity's president, said last week in a phone interview from New York. "We take one thing away for her to think about."

It was also the New York charity that put Polak in contact with HBO, the U.S. cable channel that bought the documentary and gave it the promotion necessary to get an Oscar nomination.

"We expected that it would be nominated, but I don't know whether it's going to win or not because it's up against very stiff competition," Fekula said.

The charity's president was full of praise for the film, which he described as "very profound and touching and dramatic." However, he added, "There are parts of it that aren't very kind to the [Russian] authorities, so I don't know what their reaction is going to be." So far, the film has not been released in Russia, and the local media have not covered the documentary's nomination, although Ogonyok magazine interviewed Polak on her charity work in 2003.

By contrast, the Polish media have covered the nomination extensively. Marcin Kaminski, editor of Filmweb.pl, a web site on Polish film, stated in an e-mail last week that news of the nomination has appeared in "all Polish media," from television to newspapers and the Internet.

"Of course everyone is very happy about it," he said. "We hope that Hanna and Andrzej will receive the award." The film had its Polish premiere at a Warsaw homeless shelter at the beginning of this month.

The film has already received some positive critical reaction in the United States. Daniel Wible of the web site Filmthreat wrote that "this Polish-made short documentary will likely go down as a personal highlight of Sundance '05," and described the film as "devastating, heartbreaking and unforgettable."

Here in Russia, the film's favorable publicity is good news for a foundation called Priyut Detstva, or Shelter of Childhood. Priyut Detstva will run the hostel that is to be launched with the money raised by the Children of Leningradsky Fund.

"The work on the street does not make too much sense if there is no good rehabilitation program that follows," Polak wrote last week. She said that her priority was to open a center with "a very professional program that would allow [children] to make changes in their lives."

Founded in 1998, Priyut Detstva is run by Sapar Kulyanov, an associate of Polak since her early years in Moscow. When the two met at a conference on child homelessness, Kulyanov was working as the director of a state children's shelter. Polak began to send him those children who wanted to start a new life away from the streets. Some of those children are featured in the film, and in an interview last week, Kulyanov said that he found these scenes particularly moving.

"A small girl with blonde hair is begging in an underpass [in a scene from the film]. She later came to us, and she has already lived in a family for several years; she has been fostered," he said.

At present, the large redbrick building that will house the rehabilitation center is not fully built and needs major decorating work that will cost around $300,000, Kulyanov said. Ultimately, 40 children at a time will be able to spend from six months to a year at the center, receiving medical treatment and education, as well as vital help in finding a permanent home -- whether that be back with their natural parents or through fostering and adoption.

The fund director believes that the success of "The Children of Leningradsky" will help the project come to fruition. "Now there is hope that the showings of the film in the United States will lead to money coming in," he said. "People watch the film with their eyes and feel it in their hearts."

For more information on the Children of Leningradsky Fund, see www.rcws.org/index.html.