”WELCOME TO CHECHNYA”— Unimaginable Peril

”WELCOME TO CHECHNYA”

Unimaginable Peril

Amos Lassen

“Welcome to Chechnya” follows a group of activists who risk unimaginable peril to confront the ongoing anti-LGBTQ pogrom in the repressive and closed Russian republic of Chechnya.

Since 2017, Chechnya’s tyrannical leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, has brought about a depraved operation to “cleanse the blood” of LGBTQ Chechens He oversees a government-directed campaign to detain, torture and execute them. Activists take matters into their own hands. In his new documentary, David France uses a remarkable approach to anonymity to expose this and to tell the story of an extraordinary group of people who confront evil every day of their lives.

We see a small group of activists working to remove LGBTQ citizens out of Russia through a series of safe houses, government partnerships around the world, and lots of risky travel plans. Each of these escapees’ faces has been CGI-modified to look different and that shows how scary and intense this cleansing is for Chechens. We follow a few of these citizens as they are forced to stay inside, keep low profiles, and move quickly when told that the time has come. The documentary never calms down and we, in the audience, are not allowed to relax.

Everyone in the film shows courage and asks us to do the same. We see the imprisonment of mostly young LGBTQ citizens, and the film is horrific and almost unwatchable at times. There are clips of unnecessary violence towards these random citizens throughout the film, and even if we close our eyes, we still hear the brutality.

In some places, the world continues to be awful for those that are different and this documentary make us feel frustrated for not knowing about these stories earlier. At the same time, the film is a call-to-action to listen to others, to be informed, and to contribute to causes that matter. This is a difficult film to watch but its message of intolerance and bravery is so very important.

Director France aligns himself with the men and women trying to free the people who now fear for their lives and asks the truly terrifying question of if we don’t stop it there, how far can this kind of behavior spread? 

We are taken into the safe houses with the young men and women trying to travel the “Rainbow Railroad” to Canada. We see the detailed process that it takes to rescue these young men and women, whose identities are protected by a new technology that basically gives them a face and voice on film that’s not their own. The film is intercut with horrifying footage of hate crimes against gay people in the region that are impossible to forget— this is a matter of life and death.

When terrorism was growing from Chechnya in the early 2000s, Putin responded by installing a pro-Russia  regime, with Kadyrov  at its head. In return for his loyalty, Putin gave him free rein to run his country how he wanted  and thus began a growing cult of personality. This lack of accountability has allowed and even helped “a brutal anti-gay purge of enforced disappearances, torture, and extra-judicial killings in the corrupt, ultra-conservative, and predominantly Muslim republic.”

Details of the purge, have leaked out even with the regime’s effective silencing methods. France now brings them to wider attention in his film that is filled with suspense, as we are taken into the perilous escape route out of Chechnya \and into hiding with some who flee. We get a taste of the fear that a regime known for carrying out hits far beyond its own borders can engender. The documentary stuns us with what Putin and his “pals” cannot seem to see: that it is people, and their undeserved suffering, have precisely everything to do with these inhuman policies.

We see that David Isteev and Olga Baranova, activists of the Russian LGBT Network, a non-governmental rights organization, help those at risk in their attempts to  escape. They have no prior experience in how to hide people in danger, or how to obtain the necessary paperwork for them, they work to meet such urgent need, taking in around 25 people per month to their secret shelter in Moscow, a city that, despite its own poor human rights record, is safe in comparison to Grozny.  They risk their own lives on missions, and fighting to keep stress at bay. Their work makes them targets of death threats.

Getting to a safe house outside Chechnya is no way the end of their ordeal. By leaving, they arrive at zero, with little chance to speak their own language, resume their professions, or talk to relatives. Their ties to all they have known are severed. They carry the stigma of “a shame so strong it has to be washed away by blood” stays with them through  a lifetime of socialization and violent reinforcement. The trauma of what they go through never leaves them. The dislocation and claustrophobia can be too much to bear. Canada has taken in 44 of the 151 survivors that the Russian LGBT Network has helped out of Chechnya, Trump’s administration has not agreed to take in even one.

“The repression within Chechnya is so brutal, and the hand of Kadyrov’s henchmen so global in its reach, that scarcely any of those persecuted are willing to go public about their experiences in the purge, which it is suspected has even claimed a prominent pop star who disappeared in Grozny in 2017 while on a brief visit from Moscow.

We see grainy mobile footage of homophobic attacks with eyewitness evidence of a fraction of atrocities in a nation that, its leader declares, has no gay people — and insists that if it did, their families would kill them before any state intervention. 

Isteev and Olga Baranova have sacrificied everything they have to save LGBT youths in Chechnya and they are truly inspiring. Their work in this documentary is a wake-up call for the world to do much more.

Welcome To Chechnya starts with Isteev on the phone. He is the crisis response coordinator for the Russian LGBT Network. He always seems to be on the phone. Anya, a lesbian girl in Chechnya, is calling. Her uncle knows that she’s gay and is blackmailing her to have sex with him or he will tell her dad. Knowing that an almost certain death awaits her either way, Anya’s only hope lies with Isteev to get her out of the country.

Isteev’s job is to help bring gays and lesbians facing persecution to safety. He is aided by Baranova, the founding director of the Moscow Community Center for LGBT+ Initiatives, who has set up a safe house in Moscow for these youths to stay before they are taken out of Russia. Through fly-on-the-wall-footage of these tense breakouts as well as face-to-face interviews with Isteev and Baranova, the film informs and inspires..

Grisha (not his real name) is an ethnic Russian who was detained while working in Chechnya. He was deeply surprised by the way he was treated, considering the previous friendliness of the locals towards him. He was allowed out of the region by the authorities because he was not Chechen but he fears for his life, as well as the lives of his family and boyfriend.

France has done an amazing job of laying out the context of the gay purge before we go with him on a journey that involves border crossings, emotional reunions and incredible resilience in the face of evil. All of this takes place against a backdrop of institutional failure that comes from the autonomous region and goes right up to the head of state himself.

In 2017 during a drug raid in Chechnya, authorities found explicitly gay photographs and texts on a man’s phone. This was the beginning. They tortured him until he gave up his friends and this began a purge that has caused hundreds of men and women to be detained, tortured, and given back to their families to die.

Vladimir Putin is not directly responsible for what is happening in Chechnya but the Kremlin’s lack of condemnation, coupled with refusing to open an official investigation, gives Kadyrov the freedom to continue his campaign of terror. Kadyrov is a useful pawn in Chechnya, maintaining stability in a region that has gone to war with Russia twice in the past thirty years. Now with reports of institutionally-sanctioned homophobic violence spreading throughout the Russian south, there is a great fear that it could pop up in other regions of Russia, with the Kremlin doing nothing to help.

David France sees the issue as a global one. As refugees wait for visas, they bounce off the walls. In one particularly distressing scene, one slits his wrists out of frustration. While LGBT organizations worldwide are ready to help work on this issue together, it requires government intervention through international condemnation, funding and humanitarian visa allocation.

Welcome to Chechnya is grim, especially footage intercepted by activists showing brutal beatdowns and rapes. Nonetheless, even with the difficulties these people face, France captures the intimacy and beauty of gay love by showing Grisha and his boyfriend, Bogdan playing by the beach and caressing each other in the bath. It’s a beautiful, loving and tender reminder of the fight is all about.

France’s film has is “a true masterwork of LGBT empathy, working both as a devastating portrait of hate as well as a rallying call to arms” and one of the best and most important documentaries of the year.

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