David France, a journalist-turned-documentarian, exposes yet another atrocious human rights epidemic in his latest feature, “Welcome to Chechnya,” one of this year’s Sundance Film Festival’s most searing and urgent documentaries. Albeit a cheerful title, this documentary goes to great lengths to unearth the gruesome persecution, torture and “‘honor killings” of LGBTQ+ people living in the Russian republic of Chechnya. It puts a torch on the vile “anti-gay” purge that has existed in the Republic of Chechnya for some time now.
The documentary follows activists David Isteev and Olga Baranova, who each run their own under-the-radar LGBTQ+ refugee rescue organizations within Chechnya and surrounding Russian vicinities. This is their story as much as it is the many stories of abused and trailed LGBTQ+ people of Russia, both here to tell their stories and those gone but not forgotten.
The film opens with Isteev answering a pleading call from “Anya” (her identity undisclosed for her own safety). She’s living in Chechnya as a lesbian not quite outed, although her own uncle is threatening to reveal her orientation to her high-ranking militant father unless she has sex with him. The circumstance is dire with the clock not ticking in her favor. Isteev quickly implements a plan to get her out of the country to safety. Much of France’s film follows the close encounters with LGBTQ+ individuals being evacuated from their home country, where it’s fundamentally encouraged to oust and even murder those in your family who identify as gay. It’s a significant, unwavering glimpse into a global human rights issue.
France’s previous chops in investigative, reportive filmmaking led him to an Oscar nomination in 2013 with “How to Survive a Plague,” chronicling the activism push in the fight to destigmatize AIDs in the gay community. In 2017, he released “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson,” which captured the life’s work and death of Stonewall gay activist, Marsha P. Johnson. With “Welcome to Chechnya,” France takes on his heftiest mission in unveiling the corruption and harm to the LGBTQ+ community where they are most at risk. It is undoubtedly a magnum opus of sorts on human rights documentation.
The Chechen culture has been known to reward showmanship of masculinity and tearing away from the softness of male fragility. Time and time again, the government has denied the outcries while still turning a blind eye to its ongoing genocide. The governing police still harass, imprison and torture LGBTQ+-identifying people. This growing sentiment, backed indirectly by Vladimir Putin, has long fed the desensitization of LGBTQ+ citizens in the eyes of the pressurized Chechen alpha population.
Ramzan Kadyrov, the appointed leader of the Chechen Republic, is on the record of saying gay citizens simply do not exist in his country. “We don’t have any gays,” Kadyrov tells a reporter in a 2017 interview. “If there are any, take them to Canada. Take them far away from us.” It is one alarming thing to instruct the evacuation of a group of people from an entire country. It is another thing altogether to claim that no such group of people exist. The Chechen government holds high the standard of living where sub-par classes of citizens are tormented to leave their lives entirely. “It is a shame so strong, it can only be washed away with blood,” Isteev so memorably quotes in the documentary. This rings true, sadly.
“Welcome to Chechnya” does the heavy work of featuring archival footage of anti-gay violence, each account seemingly more grueling than the last. From the random acts of beatings in the day to the distant street footage of a lesbian woman being yanked out of a car by a relative who later approaches her with a giant piece of brick just before the video cuts away at its climax.
A risky aspect of France’s film is its dedication in telling the victims’ stories with heart, courage and priority. They have families, partners and friends in this world. Although heavily followed by depictions of the hardest moments, the film also spotlights the most sincere and heart-warming moments in their lives away from home. The film takes on a style of its own with daunting, carefully rendered “deep fake” face swaps in place of every documented LGBTQ+ person. Every face seen through the shelter and rescue programs is digitally altered to preserve their safety and livelihood.
Should someone ever come forward with their case of abuse in the hands of the Chechen government, it would be a substantial landmark in the fight against the anti-gay movement. That’s exactly what happens in the crucial case of Grisha, who comes forward as Maxim Lapunov, the first victim to file a public criminal case against the Republic of Chechnya. A gay man, he was followed and detained by Chechen police for twelve days, where he was beaten terribly at an unauthorized prison and demanded to out other names of gay men. Released on account of his Russian citizenship, Maxim is relocated by activists to an undisclosed place in Europe, returning to make his case against the Chechen authorities.
As the press conference went underway, and Grisha is revealed to be Maxim, the stunning visual effects are blurred away from his face. There, sitting in a theater and seeing Grisha come forward as Maxim, you hear gasps and sighs that could be taken for relief of the cause but also worry for what the public eye on Maxim truly means now —because the audience has been a witness the entire runtime.
Isteev and Baranova, who are featured heavily in talking-head interviews throughout the film, explain what the implications and risks are for every subject seen onscreen. In its structure, the film is edited expertly by Tyler H. Walk, who pieces together the tormented journeys and accounts of at-risk LGBTQ+ folks and their activists. It takes a chronicle of growing attacks and lack of social acceptance to round up the film’s purpose, however tense and horrifying to get there. Even Baranova had to flee from Russia after willingly giving her information to the Russian authorities when she filed a missing persons report on a woman whose communication went static. It is a real-life thriller in the best and worst sense of the title.
It’s not for the faint of heart to watch this documentary, but it is also crucial for every pair of eyes to be on this campaign. France’s film does the unthinkable in making a global human rights issue immediate. “Welcome to Chechnya” is a risk well worth taking. France’s film sacrifices the gloss of documentarian work to allow a platform for change. It is a startling account of a grim problem pushed out of the conversation in many countries. This film will hopefully change that.
“Welcome to Chechnya” is not without political assertion. There are ways to help. Visit their website, welcometochechnya.com, to find links to donate to the Russian LGBT Network, the Moscow Community Center for LGBT Initiatives and directly toward Maxim Lapunov’s case in the European Court of Human Rights. The documentary will be released by HBO Films in June 2020.
Directed by: David France
Edited by: Tyler H. Walk