The situation for gays and lesbians in Chechnya is beyond harrowing. They face arrest, torture, and sometimes execution. If they survive that, they are delivered back to their families with the suggestion that their kin finish the job of killing them. Some have joined the ranks of the world’s disappeared. This special project of strongman president Ramzan Kadyrov “to cleanse the blood” of the country’s LGBTQ population has been under way since 2016 with barely any notice from the rest of the world. Oscar-nominated filmmaker David France’s (How to Survive a Plague) tense, devastating documentary reveals the depth of an ongoing genocide and the efforts of Russian activists to rescue the victims of the atrocities.
Grisha, a 30-year-old Russian event planner who had the misfortune to be working in Chechnya, and Anya, in danger of being outed to her government official father, are among the people Crisis Response Coordinator David Isteev and his colleagues at the Russian LGBT Network try to help during the course of Welcome to Chechnya. It is a fraught operation as Isteev others travel back and forth to Chechnya, spiriting people out of the country and into Russian safehouses until visas can be secured and lives can begin anew as refugees in safer countries.
It is perilous work, not the least because Russia itself is a profoundly homophobic nation, and it is a little bit like trying to sop up an ocean with paper towels. At the point where Welcome to Chechnya ends, Isteev and his colleagues had aided 151 people – with 40,000 more still at risk. The film itself would not have been possible without new technology that allowed France to mask the identities of his subjects by digitally replacing their visages with others acting as “face doubles.” Voice doubles were also used to further ensure that the documentary would not endanger lives.
France and his small crew used consumer-grade cameras, cell phones, and GoPro and to blend in as tourists in order to follow Isteev and his associates on missions and the journeys of several people they smuggle out of Chechnya. The rescue scenes are intense, the knowledge that one wrong move can lead to exposure and arrest making the terror palpable. At safe houses, there is sometimes euphoria but also frustration and fear as men and women wait for word on the visas that will allow them to leave Russia and settle elsewhere as refugees. “Safe” is also a relative term in a country like Russia that has its own outbursts of anti-LGBTQ violence, making anxiety a constant companion.
France finds unassuming heroes in Isteev and Olga Baranova, founding director of the Moscow Community Center for LGBT+ Initiatives, as they quietly risk their own lives and freedom in the service of others.
Among the refugees, Grisha emerges as an extraordinary individual. Because he is Russian, the Chechnyan authorities realize belatedly that he could make trouble for them in a way that everyday Chechnyans cannot. There is a target on his back and that of his partner and family. How he responds to that threat makes for some of Welcome to Chechnya‘s most riveting scenes.
The documentary, which is airing on HBO, can make for rough viewing, particularly in footage France discovered and includes of the brutality inflicted on the victims by the Chechnyan authorities and sometimes their families. It is also necessary viewing, a wakeup call to the world of state-sanctioned violence that has gone on unabated for five long years. Welcome to Chechnya starkly makes clear the terrible price LGBTQ people have paid for the international community’s inattention and willful ignorance –Pam Grady