For the past 15 years, Debbie Deegan’s charity, To Russia With Love, has been caring for children in Hortolova orphanage. Now the children’s extraordinary stories have been committed to film. Emily Hourican attended its premiere.
It’s certainly the strangest movie premiere I’ve been to. The location, a low building showing signs of surviving a rough winter, in a clearing among the thousands of acres of sparse pine forest that separate this region from the pumped-up rush of Moscow.
There is no red carpet, just swept earth, and from overhead the steady drip-drip of rain from a thousand trees replaces the snap and flash of paparazzi bulbs. Birds call and a woodpecker busily taps a tree trunk. Inside the building, the screening room is an assembly hall with low wooden benches and the inimitable smell of school-halls everywhere: dust, exhaustion, feet.
The audience is a group of 50-odd orphan children, aged eight to 17, some of whom are the film stars as well, with their carers and instructors. Dressed in neat, clean but shabby clothes, these children are here to watch their own stories, delicately transformed into a four-minute animated film by Irish company Brown Bag Films.
Even the celebrities are off-beat: instead of movie stars and ‘It’ girls, there is the Irish ambassador to Russia, Eoin O’Leary, with his wife Anne; and the governor of this region, Nikolay Vasilyevich Denin who, on his home territory, seems every bit as magnificent a figure as Russell Crowe attending the premier of Noah. That he is here, with his entourage, to see the recitals, the shawl dances, the musical efforts of these orphan children that precede the screening, is both a loosening of the usual political order in Russia, and testimony to the remarkable work done by Debbie Deegan and the Irish charity To Russia With Love, in making the stories of these children count far beyond their forest-clearing.
Anya is a beautiful four-minute animated version of these stories. A tale of abandonment, loneliness and fear transformed into love and hope by the intervention of To Russia With Love. The film is inspired by the children and the animation based on their physical reality: the way they look and dress, where they live and what they do. This is their story, without specific details of how and why, but tracking the precise emotional journey they travel. As such, it is a big deal.
“This is by far the most nerve-wracking screening I’ve ever attended,” says film director Damien O’Connor of Brown Bag Films. “If you take a film to the Galway Film Festival, for example, and people don’t laugh in the right places, it’s a shame, but not the end of the world. But here, you go to a bunch of orphan children, you take photos of them and film them running down corridors, then you come back a year later and show them the results – and if the kids don’t recognise it, and like it; if it’s not authentically Russia, you’ve failed. And that’s a catastrophe.
“If the children look at me when this is over and think, ‘this is just another let-down’, that would be the worst. Or if it upsets them. Imagine if it upset the kids, and the carers found it schmaltzy or cheesy?”
But the film is wonderful, just the right side of cute, just the right side of tragic. Anyway, the children are kind critics. Mainly because they cannot believe that the world outside their orphanage would take an interest in them. Until now, that has not been their experience.
So how did Damien come to make a film of this out-of-the-way place where Russian children show the benefits of Irish generosity and affection? “I got a call one day from Debbie Deegan, who wanted me to make a 30-second animated ad for the charity. I said ‘No, I’m not interested. It’s pointless for you and me. No one will click on it, it’ll be really expensive and gain you nothing, forget it.’ We had a long conversation about the fact that I wouldn’t do it. Then I put the phone down, and went back to my computer.
“There was an email from Debbie saying, ‘Ok, so where do we go from here?’ I laughed and thought, ‘this woman is pretty funny, or she’s insane’.” That persistence, a hallmark of Debbie’s, paid off, and the idea gradually mutated from a 30-second ad into a four-minute film as Damien began to get excited about the possibilities. “I thought more and more about it, and I thought, this hasn’t been done before. Instead of charities going out and saying ‘give us money and we will give you nothing, but we will help people on your behalf’, we’re saying, ‘here is a short film. If you like it, give us €5’. It’s the Christmas single in animation form. We’re busking.”
The film was made thanks to the generosity of Brown Bag – which got behind the project and provided time, expertise and the conditions to work on it for their employees, who responded enthusiastically – and Infinite animation studio, in Singapore, which also worked for free, seeing both the value of the project and the creative potential. Music is by Darren Hendley, with vocals by Lisa Hannigan, meaning that a Christmas single is likely.
And so, 14 months almost to the day from that first phonecall, Debbie and Damien, along with film producer Edel Byrne and a gang of Irish volunteers, are here in Hortolova, making speeches and accepting commemorative medals from the governor. The occasion is, in true Russian style, grand and elaborate. But really, we are all here for the children.
We all had separate roles. For some, simply being there was their job. A friendly face, an encouraging smile, a link with the wider world about which these children know very little. To cheer and cheer up. My role, however, was to talk to the children, one by one. To hear the stories of how they came to be there and what they hoped for in life. Those stories, of broken, abused childhoods, parents lost to a spiral of desperate drinking and neglect, sometimes vicious behaviour, often just miserable failures of effort, of will, of ability to stop drinking. Siblings separated and lost. Of foster families where a six-year-old’s ability to work on the farm weighed more than their need for education or affection.
One girl, 14, told of how she and her sister were pushed through a broken window by their grandmother after their mother failed to answer the door, to find her hanging, dead, from a light fixture. Another girl talked of being sent to live with her grandmother when her parents turned to drink, only for the grandmother to go the same way. So she was sent to her other grandmother, who then also began to drink. The girl then spent almost two years in a kind of halfway house before coming here, where slowly she seems to be beginning to pick up the threads of her life again, showing an interest in agriculture and farming that staff encourage and support.
The stories were told with tragic matter-of-factness, by children whose lives have led them to expect nothing more. Only a very few showed raw emotion. Most had succeeded, as children can, in distancing themselves from the pain they have endured, putting it aside long enough to take some fun from their surroundings. Even so, the need for affection is constant. Everywhere I went in the orphanage for five days, I found children with arms out and hopeful smiles, wishing for a hug, any demonstration of love. They all seem younger than they are, by a good few years; smaller, but also more naive and vulnerable.
Most are social orphans, meaning that they have at least one living parent. But those parents are unfit to care for them because they are mentally unwell or, more often, alcoholics. Through neglect and abuse, they lose the right to custody of their children, or relinquish it of their free will, abandoning the children into State care and, frequently, never again visiting or even writing.
The fact that somewhere out there, in the vastness of this country of 144 million people, those parents are still alive, means that the children left behind can never free themselves of the desperate yearning that, one day, ‘Mama’ might come back for them. This is where hope becomes, not a blessing, but a tragedy. It is the daily sadness of their lives, the subtle expression of sorrow that peeps out behind the determination to be cheerful, the base note to all the momentary diversions and different attractions of childhood.
For now, this orphanage in this wood clearing, is the best place they can be. Because Hortolova orphanage, in Bryansk Oblast, Russia, has been under the wing of To Russia With Love for 15 years. And the children who graduate from here have a far higher than average chance of making something of their lives. The national statistics for orphan children once they leave care are not good: alcohol, early pregnancy, education drop-out, even prison.
To Russia With Love bucks all those trends, sending most of their kids on to third level education, continuing to support them through it, helping them transition into the wider world, standing by them as they take the first terrified steps on their own. They do this on a threadbare budget, without frills of any kind, and certainly not the kind of insurance, pension pots or government funding that some larger charities have. This is a lean and transparent operation, where the hard-earned money so generously donated by Irish people is put to excellent use.
This is the same clearing in the woods, almost an hour from the city of Byransk, eight hours and a world away from Moscow, that Debbie Deegan first stepped into 15 years ago, on a highly quixotic mission to find the classmates of the seven-year-old Russian girl, Zena, she had recently adopted. Her plan then was simple: find the kids, reassure them that Zena was ok, deliver a few toys and sweets, kiss them all and wave goodbye.
Instead, she found a set-up so forlorn and neglected, she could not walk away. Nearly 200 children were living in squalor, in buildings so old and dilapidated, they entirely failed to keep out the harsh Russian winter. The grass grew higher than the windows and there wasn’t a single working toilet. The kitchen was filthy and food meagre. Toothpaste was unheard of. And, because of the lack of adequate adult supervision, a primal law of survival of the fittest was in operation. The strongest, cleverest and largest thrived, at the expense of the small and weak.
From a comfortable background as a Clontarf housewife, mother of two children before the adoption of Zena, Debbie was horrified. But it wasn’t until she was told, through an interpreter, by a nine year old girl, Sasha, that she had never been kissed before, that Debbie broke down and made the promise that still binds her. “I will come back,” she told that child. And she did, many, many times.
Thanks to the generosity of the Irish people, who were moved by the tales she told of these children’s lives, and who trusted her to use their money wisely, and the support of the local Russian administration, Debbie established and then fine-tuned the charity. The orphanage was almost entirely rebuilt, painted pink – to the confusion and horror of the Russian architects who worked on it – and the children received not just warm clothes, good shoes, toys and decent food, but also unconditional love, respect, consideration.
To hear some of the older children talk about Debbie’s arrival all those years ago – the 25 and 26 year-olds, now successfully established in their careers and lives, some with children of their own – is to hear an almost biblical tale; an angel of love bursting into the dark of neglect and indifference. One young man, Andrei, training at a prestigious naval academy, seems to speak for many of them when he tells me, “Everything I have done is because Debbie and the Irish believe in me and I do not want to let them down.” For Andrei, who watched his father slowly die after his mother stabbed him in a drunken row, then ran away, aged five, and was picked up by social services after a few days in which he lived on the streets, getting into and through naval college has been a constant battle on every level – social, administrative, intellectual – in which To Russia With Love has constantly supported him.
Frankly, even now, this clearing in the woods feels like a dropped stitch, a gap in the fabric of the country, except that Debbie – with the help and generosity of Irish people – has picked it up and knitted it back in. The presence of the Irish ambassador and the regional governor bring Moscow, Ireland, even Bryansk city itself, one vital step closer. And now, Anya will take the children’s stories out into a wider world which, we hope, will watch and listen, and be moved to help.
by Emily Hourican, Sunday Independent, April 28th 2014