'Welcome to Chechnya' Review: A look at state-sanctioned torture, rape and murder of homosexuals in Russia
David France's documentary trails underground activists sneaking people out of the federal republic to spare them from virulently homophobic officials
Spoilers for 'Welcome to Chechnya'
Journalist David France is best known for his documentaries 'How To Survive A Plague' and 'The Death And Life of Marsha P. Johnson' – the latter based on an American gay liberation activist and self-identified drag queen. France is known to be an outspoken advocate for gay rights, however, his latest offering 'Welcome to Chechnya' brought to audiences by HBO, is quite different. France relies on footage shot just a few years ago, in and around Russia's Chechen Republic, where a network of underground activists have worked to sneak desperate people out of the country to spare them from torture, rape and murder at the hands of the virulently homophobic local authorities.
To protect the identities of those whose stories France tells in 'Welcome to Chechnya', the director uses cutting-edge technology to replace their faces with those of actors who have volunteered to serve as their "masks." Unlike the present norm where faces are blurred or blacked out when they speak directly to the camera, the new documentary features the face-replacement digital imaging technology even in casual scenes, where the people chat and just spend time hunkering down in secret shelters.
Importantly, France brings out the truths – but not their real identities – as the state-sanctioned purge of LGBTQ people in the Chechen Republic led to unlawful beatings, detentions, beatings, torture, and execution of men they presume to be gay or bisexual, as he follows activists David Isteev, crisis intervention coordinator for The Russian LGBT Network, and Olga Baranova, director of the Moscow Community Center for LGBTI+ Initiatives, as they work to help victims escape Chechnya.
The documentary opens with Isteev as he responds to a call. A 21-year-old lesbian says her uncle is threatening to out her to her family if she doesn’t have sex with him. Her father is a high-ranking official in the Chechen government, and Anya is certain he will hurt — maybe even kill — her should he find out. These are the options for lesbians in Chechnya: Rape or death.
Anya is just a pseudonym for is one of the many who have fled the Chechen Republic as they faced persecution by the government due to their orientation. Chechnya’s been especially dangerous since 2016, when the republic’s bearded, ultra-macho leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, ramped up his rhetoric about cultural purity and started insisting to the international press that his region was devoid of gay people. The partly political thriller works as a disturbing expose as France provides context on the risky human-smuggling operation that goes on amidst the persecution.
In between shocking clips of Kadyrov, France also employs alarming footage of those groups who monitor and persecute LGBT citizens. With its footage of conventional interviews, the viewers also get first-hand accounts from the refugees as they speak about what they are fleeing.
The extraction scenes are anxiety-inducing and well-paced. Viewers must be prepared for descriptions and depictions of physical, sexual, and emotional violence. Even when LGBT people are released by the police, their families are encouraged to murder them to remove the “stain on their honor," -- as one bit of footage showing a family does just that – the footage cutting out just before the fatal blow.
With 'Welcome to Chechnya', France draws the attention to a still-unfolding human rights crisis that has not received as much international press attention as required. It also shows that despite how far the LGBT movement has come in the United States, much more work needs to be done in many parts of the world as others fight bigotry and autocracy to live their truth.
'Welcome to Chechnya' airs on HBO on June 30th at 10/9c.