Welcome to Chechnya changed the names and facial details of all those victims interviewed to protect their human rights from further state persecution.
As someone who has spent my adult life fighting for LGBTQ+ equality, I have watched the growing persecution of LGBTQ+ people in Russia with horror. Here the introduction of the 2013 ‘gay propaganda law’ was a mere tool for state-sanctioned oppression as men, teenagers and women found themselves subject to horrific treatment. Victims have suffered humiliation, degradation, and abuse at the hands of gangs whose sole aim is to purify Russian society. Many of those victims were mere teenagers who could be manipulated and threatened easily. Their plight caught on social media posts that remain openly available on platforms that should have protected them. But these human rights abuses have found an even greater evil in the hands of Ramzan Kadyrov, the Putin loving puppet leader of Chechnya. Here, stories began to emerge in 2017 of torture, murder, and the social cleansing of LGBTQ+ people.
Acclaimed documentary filmmaker David French brings these human rights abuses to life in Welcome to Chechnya through cutting edge facial editing software to protect victims. While at the same time reflecting the bravery of the Russian LGBT+ activists who risk their own lives in helping individuals escape persecution. This is a documentary that not only shines a light on the social cleansing at the heart of Putin’s Russia and Kadyrov’s Chechnya but also reminds us that LGBTQ+ torture and persecution is far from being a footnote in history.
David French opens his film with Isteev (an LGBT rights activist in Moscow) answering a desperate call from a young woman in the Chechen capital Grozny. She has recently been outed by her uncle after refusing to have sex with him for his silence. But to add to her plight, her father is a high-ranking government official who would rather her dead than a lesbian. As he listens intently, Isteev is more than aware that lesbians often disappear in Chechnya at the hands of their family members leading him to plan her escape to a place of safety. Isteev works for the Moscow Community Center for LGBT+ Initiatives, where he risks his own life to get others to safety.
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Meanwhile, in one of the centres hidden safe houses in Moscow, we meet ‘Grisha’, an ethnic Russian detained while working in Chechnya. Grisha spent days undergoing torture, beatings, and humiliation due to his perceived sexuality before suddenly being allowed to leave as a Russian citizen. However, his release was subject to the threat of death if he spoke about his treatment. It is immediately apparent that Grisha’a experiences have left lasting scars made worse by a sense of guilt for those he knows were tortured and murdered.
As we follow the harrowing journey of ‘Grisha’, ‘Anya’ and others, French uses footage uncovered by LGBTQ+ and human rights activists to bring home the reality of the abuses at play. This footage leaves the viewer stunned, angry, and dismayed at the lack of global justice. While in turn asking why there remains an international indifference to the state-orchestrated torture and murder underway. After all, these events can be traced back to 2017. Here the denials of Putin and Kadyrov were made through smiles, laughter, and open dismal of the existence of LGBTQ+ people, while the world ignored the screams of the victims.
However, French rightly focuses his camera on the survivors rescued by Isteev, Baranova and their colleagues. Here each individual’s urgent fight for freedom and human rights challenges the world’s indifference while shining a light on the dictators who encourage hate. The result is a harrowing and urgent journey into the horror of social cleansing in our 21st Century world. In truth, genocide, torture, and murder are still realities in states where toxic masculinity and hate reign supreme. French shines a light on the leaders who wield their power free of control while reminding us all that our LGBTQ+ community is global. And here, our shared duty, wherever we may live, is to protect our LGBTQ brothers and sisters.
Director: David France