David France’s gut-wrenching documentary on the state-sanctioned purge of GLBT people in Chechnya is an excellent expose of the atrocities and portrait of the heroes in Russia.
In 2017, news started trickling out of Russia about the systematic persecution of GLBTQ+ people in the small Chechen Republic. While part of the Russian Federation, the Chechen Republic holds a great deal of autonomy under their strongman leader Ramzan Kadyrov. Kadyrov, much like Putin, governs in part by appealing to tradition and religion. GLBTQ+ people have fallen in the crosshairs as enemies of the people for the regime. For years, queer people have recounted their harrowing tales of state-sanctioned torture and imprisonment, while the Chechen and Russian governments deny these events are occurring.
David France sheds light on the victims of state brutality and the people working to extract GLBTQ+ Chechens from Russia in his latest documentary for HBO, Welcome to Chechnya. Focusing on the members of the Russian LGBT Network, France follows activists Olga Baranova and David Isteev as they work to help victims escape Chechnya.
Chechnya combines intimate moments of GLBT folk in the Network’s safe house with news reports and horrifying footage of gay-bashing to create an intimate narrative of survivors framed by a greater political context. France also follows David and Olga in extraction operations so we can see their work in real-time.
France favors a Direct Cinema style, using handheld cameras to document subjects as they move through the process of leaving Russia. France does have interview sections with Baranova and Isteev, but these work more in tandem with the news clips to help situate the action and give the audience background on Russia and Chechnya. Editing and intertitles by Tyler Walk are subtle, as is the score by Evgueni and Sacha Galperine: the intent is to get out of the way to let the story speak for itself.
The most jarring visual aspect is the use of digital facial altering to protect the refugees’ identities. While it lends an element of the uncanny valley, the alterations still allow us to see the facial expressions of the documentary’s subjects while still giving them anonymity. This technology is more effective than it may initially appear, as when one victim of the violence, Maxim Lupunov, tells his story to the Russian government. As he goes public and reveals his name, we watch the digital mask melt off his face, and see someone completely new.
A warning for those sensitive to violence: the film is full of descriptions and depictions of physical, sexual, and emotional violence. The documentary opens with David speaking with “Anya,” the daughter of a Chechen official whose uncle demands she have sex with him or he’ll tell her father the truth about her sexuality. While much of the coverage on the Chechen gay purges have focused on gay men, the LGBT Network has to intervene much more to extract lesbians, as Chechnya’s patriarchal culture doesn’t allow women to travel alone. Even when GLBT people are released by the police, their families are encouraged to murder them to remove the “stain on their honor.”
The fear the refugees live in is given a tangible quality, and the documentary imbues even the most mundane moments with tension.
In one particularly horrifying bit of footage, we see a family do just that – the footage cutting out just before the fatal blow. France still gives us success stories. The aforementioned Lupunov successfully flees Russia with his family and is able to make his case — first to the Russian court and, in a post-script, to a European court.
The extraction scenes are anxiety-inducing and well-paced, giving the documentary a thriller-like feel. I found myself holding my breath in anticipation as the crew goes through checkpoints and airports in their mad dash to get out of Chechnya and Russia. The fear the refugees live in is given a tangible quality, and the documentary imbues even the most mundane moments with tension.
When Lupunov and his family are on their flight out of Russia, each moment between boarding and take off is nerve wracking: What if the authorities are holding up the plane to intercept him? When the plane finally moves, both Lupunov and the audience sighs in relief.
While Welcome to Chechnya is focused on the persecution of queer people, both the film and David from the LGBT Network make it clear this could happen to any group by politicians looking for a scapegoat. What we are watching is a genocide in real time. When we first meet Lupunov, he comments about how he couldn’t believe the sweet and kind Chechens he met when he first moved to Chechnya for work could do such awful acts.
But this is the way fascism works: we hear Kadyrov dehumanize GLBT people, even mirroring Irani president Mamoud Ahmadinejad in saying there are no gay people in Chechnya, but if they are they need to be removed to “cleanse the blood” of the republic. Fascists and strong men always need an “other” to demonize to coalesce power.
In the turmoil of a post-2016 world, this purge of queer people has been overlooked by many, but France wants to change that. This documentary gives us the story behind the headlines, and after watching Welcome to Chechnya, the desire to act is strong.
While France’s last documentary How To Survive a Plague documented the past, he now presents a struggle in real-time. Welcome to Chechnya is engaging, emotional, and often exciting; a compelling documentary that also compels the audience to take action (find more information about how to take action here). It’s not an easy watch, but a necessary one to help propel action to stop an atrocity.
Welcome to Chechnya premieres on HBO June 30th.