A shocking phone-call kicks off David France’s remarkable documentary: David Isteev, a key figure in the Russian LGBT Network, listens to ‘Anya’, a young woman from Chechnya, the predominantly Muslim southern Russian republic which resurfaced in the news in 2017 after revelations of brutal crackdowns against LGBTQ+ people. Anya says that her uncle has discovered that she is gay and is threatening to tell her father (which could result in a so-called ‘honour killing’) unless she sleeps with him. She appeals to Isteev to help her get away to another country, and the wheels are put in motion for a daring escape, as Anya joins a number of queer Chechens seeking to flee with the aid of the Network. Welcome to Chechnya follows the stories of some of the gay men and women attempting to move to safety.
The documentary’s use of digital technology to disguise its vulnerable subjects, and hence avoid putting them into an even more dangerous predicament, is surprisingly unobtrusive. Even with considerable efforts to mask their identities, the bravery these men and lesbians and their families demonstrate on camera is extraordinary, and a testament to the trust France must have built with the interviewees. They talk of experiences of entrapment, abduction, violent interrogation and torture. When one of the participants speaks to the press in Moscow, surrendering anonymity to put a face to the persecution, the digital veil melts away to reveal his face. It’s a tremendous moment, simple, moving and empowering.
The film shows harrowing video of the violence, including sexual violence, against gay and lesbian people in Chechnya and surrounding regions, almost all filmed by the perpetrators themselves. Each time, these distressing clips are introduced by the intertitle “Video intercepted by LGBT activists”, both warning the viewer of the violence to follow and emphasising the concerted effort by queer people to bring this horrific treatment to light.
France sensitively draws out the personalities of his subjects, ensuring that, despite the digital disguises and pseudonyms, they emerge as distinct individuals. As a couple of gay men prepare to leave for the airport to fly to Canada, they bicker playfully about one another’s promiscuity. A man wryly considers what name he would like to adopt for the documentary, suggesting ‘Donald Duck’ before settling on ‘Bogdan’. The complex emotions that come with refugee status are on display in a grim scene in which a young man is discovered to have cut his wrists, provoking startling rage rather than sympathy from one of the women in the refuge: to call an ambulance would risk persecution, and the man must be treated by the shelter’s inhabitants.
Archive footage of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, often described as a ‘strongman’ – a specious term applied to male rulers who show little in the way of moral courage – reveal a man who cartoonishly relishes the hate he provokes. A photo shows him beaming next to the popular Chechen singer Zelim Bakaev, before the latter vanished, reportedly after being interrogated by the police. To the activists seen here, Vladimir Putin, complicit through his failure to act, is just as repulsive. Near the end of the film, the manner in which an official reads out the decision on whether to investigate the atrocities in Chechnya makes the Kremlin’s stance thuddingly clear.
Welcome to Chechnya is France’s third film – after the Oscar-nominated documentary exploring historic Aids activism How to Survive a Plague (2012) and The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017), about the Black queer pioneer who played a key role in the Stonewall riots – and it is his best film to date. Although it is first and foremost a documentary, it has moments that evoke the genres of romance, melodrama and thriller. A scene at an airport, where a young lesbian is called back by a security guard, is unbearably tense, while a young man’s anxiety as he waits for his plane to take off and transport him from danger is palpable.
A final intertitle announces that 151 gay Chechen people have been resettled abroad by the Russian LGBT Network, nearly a third of whom have been granted refugee status in Canada. The Trump administration has accepted zero. Specific details of the Network’s success in relocating gay refugees in the rest of Europe are, of necessity, not widely published. However, a 2017 BBC article suggested that the UK had not come forward to help with visas, and that efforts to relocate gay Chechens fleeing persecution had been concentrated in five other European countries which had offered to help. Welcome to Chechnya compellingly exposes the need for more countries to respond to this humanitarian crisis.
Originally published: 24 August 2020