Film Review: Welcome to Chechnya ★★★★

Oscar-nominated filmmaker and journalist David France follows his searing AIDS activism documentary, How to Survive a Plague, and the poignant The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, with a deeply unsettling look at Chechnya’s anti-LGBTQ purge. Inspired by Masha Gessen’s The New Yorker article Forbidden Letters: The Gay Men Who Fled Chechnya’s Purge, Welcome to Chechyna opens with a horrifying phone call received by David Isteev, the Crisis Response Coordinator for the Russian LGBT Network. A distressed young Chechen woman, referred to as “Anya” to maintain her anonymity, says that she is being blackmailed into sex with her uncle. He’s threatening to tell her father, who works for the Chechen government, that she’s a lesbian, something she believes he will kill her for. It’s a disturbing opening, and the film doesn’t let up from there.

Welcome to Chechnya is punctuated with harrowing intercepted videos of LGBTQ people being attacked and tortured. In the first video we see, one of the attackers can be heard saying “all our problems are because of people like you”. These aren’t isolated homophobic and transphobic incidents, but in fact part of a state-sponsored purge that first came to Isteev’s attention in 2017. Gay men are being rounded up and detained by Chechen police, coerced into ‘turning in’ any gay men they’re acquainted with before being returned to their relatives with the advice that they be killed. Much of the violence against lesbians in Chechnya happens at the hands of their families, with so-called honour killings.

Welcome to Chechnya. Courtesy of HBO.

Isteev helped set up and run a secret shelter in Moscow to house gay men and women whom they have managed to get out of Chechyna; a place to keep them safe as they assist them in obtaining refugee status in countries outside Russia. We meet various people being housed in the shelter and hear their first hand accounts of horrific torture at the hands of the police, including electrocution and beatings. In order for them to remain anonymous they are digitally disguised by face and voice doubles. Apart from a slight blur that occasionally appears around the edges of the speaker’s face, the technique is hardly detectable. Initially I’d questioned whether more traditional solutions such as shooting participants in low light, or from behind, or just heavily pixellating their faces beyond recognition might have been a potentially less distracting method. In this case however, such techniques would have let the viewer off the hook to some extent. Although the words themselves might have outraged us, by instead forcing us to look at human faces, the stories shared are all the more confronting and impactful, and linger in the mind longer.

As well as focusing on the atrocities being committed in Chechnya, the film also humanises the experience of becoming a refugee in acknowledging the complexity of the situation; the relief of getting away from life-threatening danger paired with the trauma of leaving behind everything and everyone you know. “Grisha’s” immediate family have also had to go into hiding in order to protect themselves, which became all the more necessary once “Grisha” bravely spoke publicly about being brutalised by Chechen police for being gay, the first survivor to do so. His courage in coming forward, along with the film’s focus on his loving relationship with his long-term boyfriend “Bogdan”, are hopeful elements amidst the terror of the situation.

Welcome to Chechnya. Courtesy of HBO.

France’s background as an investigate journalist, evident in Marsha P. Johnson, is palpable throughout the film, especially in the tense sequences using footage shot on concealed cameras as we accompany Isteev into Grozny to rescue “Anya”. With heart-stopping editing by Tyler H. Walk, the scenes have all the tension of a thriller. We also follow Isteev’s fellow activist, Olga Baranova, Director of the Moscow Community Center for LGBT+ Initiatives as she puts her own life on the line in an attempt to track down “Leeza” who has gone missing in Russia. Composers Evgueni Galperine and Sacha Galperine’s frequently disquieting score is another tool in France’s filmmaking arsenal to ensure viewers are suitably uncomfortable.

As the film examines the close relationship between Chechnya’s strongman leader Ramzan Kadyrov and Russia’s federal President Putin, there’s an excerpt from an interview by HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel’s producer/correspondent David Scott. We see Scott ask Kadyrov directly about the allegations, and the response is chilling: “This is nonsense. We don’t have such people here. We don’t have any gays. If there are any take them to Canada…They are devils. They are for sale. They are subhuman. God damn them for slandering us.”

With the purge continuing to be denied by the Chechen authorities and going unchecked, David Isteev says that the violence has now bled into neighbouring Ingushetia and Dagestan, and asks what is to stop it spreading throughout Russia. By the end of the film we learn that the heroic efforts of Isteev and his fellow activists have resulted in the resettlement of 151 LGBTQ refugees abroad during the first two years of the purge. While Canada has granted refugee status to 44 of them, with the help of the Rainbow Railroad, unsurprisingly given the 45th US President’s admiration for Putin and his own track record on attacking LGBTQ rights, no refugees have been accepted by the USA. As the activists emphasise the importance of getting news about what’s happening in Chechnya to go international, Welcome to Chechnya, available to a wide audience on HBO in the US and on the BBC in the UK this week, succeeds not only in informing viewers, but ensuring that they are suitably incensed. Ultimately France’s film is an urgent rallying cry. It’s impossible to sit back and let this film wash over you. Attention must be paid. Essentially it’s a highly effective piece of activism in itself, a disturbing real life horror that’s compelling throughout, and achieves its purpose in making us as viewers sickened and enraged by what’s happening on our watch in the twenty first century.

Welcome to Chechnya debuts on HBO on Tuesday June 30th at 10pm ET / 11:45pm PT, and will also be available to stream on HBO GO, HBO NOW, and on HBO via HBO Max and other partners’ platforms.

NewFest is hosting an exclusive online advance screening of Welcome to Chechyna and on Monday June 29th at 8pm ET / 5pm PT there will be a livestream Q&A with director David France and producer Alice Henty.

In the UK Welcome to Chechnya airs on BBC Four on 1st July.

Welcome To Chechnya (2020): Official Trailer | HBO
Welcome to Chechnya Official Poster. Courtesy of HBO.

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