Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | June 29th, 2020
Welcome to Chechnya (David France, 2020) 4 out of 4 stars.
Russia’s Chechen Republic is a tough place. For almost two decades following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the region fought many a civil conflict, establishing – and then losing – independence from Muscovite overlords along the way. These days, it is directly ruled by 44-year-old head of state Ramzan Kadyrov (and indirectly by Vladimir Putin), who is nothing if not a grotesque parody of an authoritarian brute. Among his many crimes against humanity is his 2017 (and beyond) campaign to rid Chechnya of its LGBTQ community. Using his people’s majority Muslim beliefs as pretext, he gave license to law enforcement to round up, beat, torture and sometimes kill those who are gay, lesbian, transgender and otherwise different from the perceived norm. Amidst this campaign of terror, most were powerless to stop him at home, and very few willing to do so from afar. There were, however, some, and the powerful new documentary Welcome to Chechnya, from director David France (The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson) showcases their efforts, lonely (and very brave) as they seemed, along with the struggles of the victims to escape and, in one notable case, strike back.
Using facial-distortion software and fake names to distort the true identities of those fleeing Chechnya, France dives right into the hair-raising, dangerous mayhem at hand. Following activists David Isteev (Crisis Response Coordinator of the Russian LGBT Network) and Olga Baranova (Director, Moscow Community Center for LGBT+ Initiatives) as they work directly on rescue efforts, France creates a real-life thriller far more gripping than any scripted drama. At one point, as a family boards a plane to a safer foreign country, we wait, terrified that something might go wrong and the flight will be stopped, as in Ben Affleck’s 2012 Oscar-winning Argo, only this time there is no cinematic fakery. The world, especially here and for these particular people, is a very scary place, and survival is far from guaranteed.
We get so used to the fake faces that it comes as a shock when one of our subjects, code name Grisha, finally unmasks himself to publicly accuse Kadyrov and his thugs of torture and worse. Yes, we know the software is at work, thanks to an opening title card that so informs us, and we can see the slight blur around the facial edges, but it’s remarkably natural, otherwise, so much so that we gasp at the third-act reveal. Still, as fascinating as this technology may be, it is hardly the heart of the matter.
Rather, it’s the life-and-death stakes that hold our attention. So, too, are we horrified at the lack of international action. We can expect nothing good from Putin – one of the globe’s great modern villains – but we wonder at the slow pace of visa and asylum applications. Still, despite the many obstacles, we learn at the end that the Russian LGBT Network has managed to resettle 151 people abroad in the first two years of the “purge,” as they call it (44 of whom went to Canada, zero of whom came to the United States, which, under Trump, has offered no assistance). This not-insignificant achievement is a testament to the will and courage of Isteev, Baranova and their colleagues, as well as to the fortitude of the people they help.
Viewer beware: there is some very difficult footage within, mostly from videos intercepted by activists that show terrible things (and imply even more, the camera cutting away before a potentially fatal blow). This is not an easy film to watch, but a necessary one, brilliantly effective and compelling in its methods. Perhaps the most chilling shots are those – taken from news clips – of Kadyrov, himself, who comes across as a violent boor let loose by Russia to keep the rebellious Chechens in line, no matter the cost. With such people in charge, anything is possible (and most anything goes), none of it good. Welcome to hell. Time to leave.
[Welcome to Chechnya premieres on HBO on June 30, 2020.]