Welcome To Chechnya *****
Director: David France
It’s been a long time coming, but an exposé of what is happening to LGBT+ people inside Chechnya has finally arrived. And not only that, but this is the kind of riveting and horrifying documentary that really should be making waves worldwide. From acclaimed documentary filmmaker David France (How To Survive A Plague, The Death And Life Of Marsha P. Johnson), this feature documentary is available in the UK on BBC iPlayer as part of their Storyville series (entitled Welcome To Chechnya: The Gay Purge), this remarkable film follows the Russian LGBT Network, a charity whose mission is to rescue queer Chechen refugees and assist them in finding asylum abroad.
Since President Putin passed his “Gay Propaganda” law in 2013, the world’s attention was fixed on Russia in the lead-up to the Sochi Winter Olympic Games the following year. And then the news cycle – and subsequently the public’s attention – moved on. But in 2017, reports emerged from the southern Russian Republic of Chechnya that LGBT+ people were being secretly rounded up and abducted, imprisoned and tortured. Though the Head of the Chechen Republic – Ramzan Kadyrov – denied such an atrocity was taking place (or even, incidentally, that LGBT+ people even live in Chechnya), evidence has been trickling through ever since of systemic government-sanctioned persecution on an alarming scale. It has been reported in the media sporadically ever since, but to date, this movie is probably the most public and striking evidence there has been in the public realm.
We meet David Isteev and Olga Baranova, two activists in Moscow whose ambition to help LGBT+ people in Chechnya was forced to grow exponentially when they realised just how much demand there was going to be. They explain early on just how surprised they were by the amount of people getting in touch as their contact details were passed around among the underground Queer population, forced to live there in secret. Initially we see the gratitude of those in their Moscow safe-house, preparing to start new lives in the countries in which the network has managed to find them safe haven. But the tone changes very quickly as the filmmakers also witness first-hand the other half of the group’s mission.
For many, simply walking out of Chechnya isn’t an option. Instead, we see David and a team of associates covertly enter Grozny with a carefully crafted plan to extract desperate subjects – in this case, “Anya”, the twenty-one year old daughter of a local government official who is being blackmailed by her uncle, threatening to expose her sexuality if she doesn’t allow him to rape her. And the father is likely to kill her if he learns the truth. What follows is a high-octane and incredibly tense sequence shot on concealed cameras as they take her from a restaurant near her house all the way out of the country, through border controls and identity checks. With all the suspense of the final scenes of Argo, with so much at stake you realise quickly just how much risk the team is taking and how life-and-death this is for those who have reached out to them.
We also meet Maxim Lapunov, who wasn’t even a resident in Chechnya when he was snatched and taken to one of the detention camps while he was there for work. Released in error, Chechen officials are now threatening both his safety and that of his entire family if he ever speaks out about what happened to him. But Maxim doesn’t want to stay silent. And so it falls to the organisation to get them all out of the country and provide the platform from which he can publicly state the truth.
As the threats come in for its volunteers too, it’s clear just how much danger these people are all in. Of course the film – and its subjects – have a political agenda, but it would be difficult for them not to, considering what they are all going through. Director France has built a tremendous amount of trust with his subjects and we see through their eyes the extreme fear they have of an oppressive regime that wants to “correct” them, or worse.
It was en vogue to talk about the homophobia in Russia back in 2014, but the atrocities in Chechnya are too often dismissed as just a symptom of that. But with the republic operating autonomously from The Kremlin, it has taken its lead from the climate created by Putin and run with it, creating one of the worst Human Rights offenses against LGBT+ people this century. Welcome To Chechnya depicts the consequences of this secret “gay purge” with resounding clarity in an astonishing and alarming film that everyone simply must see. David France has, once again, highlighted great injustice perpetrated against Queer people. Now, the world just needs to sit up and listen to this Great Whistleblower.
OUT NOW TO WATCH ON DEMAND, RELEASED BY THE BBC.