“God loves everyone, but most of all children.”
– a Leningradsky child
Few films, short or feature length, have impacted me like “The Children of Leningradsky”. Devastating, heartbreaking, and unforgettable, this Polish-made short documentary will likely go down as a personal highlight of Sundance ’05. Hanna Polak and Andrzej Celinski’s film is essentially a chronicle of a few days in the life of a group of homeless children in Post-Soviet Russia, one group out of hundreds. Mind you, homeless children in Post-Soviet Russia are nothing like homeless children in the U.S. For one thing, their numbers are disturbingly astronomical (one to four million since the fall of the Soviet Union). For another, their living conditions are, at best, deplorable, at worst, too horrible to justly describe.
The children living in Leningradsky Station range anywhere in age from 8 to 14 and in their short lives they’ve seen, lived, and died more than people five times their age. They’ve been beaten, abandoned, used, and discarded by druggie/alcoholic parents and inhuman policemen. They pass their miserable days either sniffing glue (klay), beating up older homeless people, begging for change, drinking vodka (a Russian staple), or pining for their mothers. No, “The Children of Leningradsky” is not the feel-good film of the year. In fact, it’s about the most disturbing thing you can imagine, outside the canon of Pauly Shore, that is. And Polak and Celinski are simply unsparing in their presentation of these tragic circumstances. Their camera knows virtually no bounds as it fearlessly descends into the children’s murky underground dwellings or slyly captures a policeman viciously pouring “klay” over a young boy’s head. While I fear these images will stick with me for a long time to come, there is one moment in particular that I’m sure I’ll never shake. This haunting moment is of a lost little boy who tearfully reveals that without his mother “it’s as if the city was empty.” That beyond-its-years wisdom and eloquence is a common trait among these kids, whose despairing, innocent hearts will likely never see past their 15th birthdays.