Welcome to Chechnya changed the names and facial details of all those victims interviewed. In order to protect their human rights from further state persecution.
As someone who has spent my adult life fighting for LGBTQ equality, I watched the growing persecution of LGBTQ people in Russia with horror. The introduction of the 2013 ‘gay propaganda law’ a mere tool for state-sanctioned oppression. As men, teenagers and women found themselves subject to horrific treatment. With victims suffering humiliation, degradation, and abuse at the hands of gangs who aimed to purify Russian society. Many of those victims mere teenagers who could be manipulated and threatened with ease. Their plight often caught on social media posts openly available on platforms that should have protected them. But these human rights abuses found an even greater evil in the hands of Ramzan Kadyrov. The Putin loving puppet leader of Chechnya, a state of ‘independent’ government directly controlled by the Kremlin. As stories beginning to emerge in 2017 of torture, murder, and the social cleansing of LGBTQ people.
These stories finally find a voice in the hands of acclaimed documentary filmmaker David French. Using cutting edge facial editing software to protect those persecuted, as they share their stories. While in turn celebrating the bravery of the Russian LGBT activists who risked their own lives in helping individuals escape. Within 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 the devastating fact that LGBTQ torture and persecution is far from being a footnote in history. As many countries and states continue to embrace ideologies and actions synonymous with Hitler’s Third Reich. Free from any global scrutiny in a world where countries build walls rather than dismantle them. So ‘Welcome to Chechnya’ a state where social cleansing is an open secret free from challenge.
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. Her hidden sexuality recently outed by her uncle. Who is demanding sex as payment for his continued silence; her father a high-ranking official who would rather see his daughter dead than a lesbian. Isteev is more than aware that lesbians often disappear in Chechnya at the hands of their family members. His concerns immediately leading to a plan to smuggle her out to a place of safety. While he and his colleagues explore the potential for asylum in another country. His role as part of the Moscow Community Center for LGBT+ Initiatives, already having secured the safety of dozens of LGBTQ people.
It is within one of the centres hidden safe houses in Moscow that we meet ‘Grisha’; an ethnic Russian detained while briefly working in Chechnya. His life forever changed after being incarcerated by the Chechen police. Spending days undergoing integration, torture, beatings, and humiliation. Before suddenly being allowed to leave due to being a Russian citizen. A release subject to the threat of death if spoke about his treatment. His experiences not only having left scars but a knowledge of the torture and murder of those less fortunate than himself. His trauma only continuing as the lives of his family and boyfriend of 10 years are also threatened.
As we follow the harrowing journey of ‘Grisha’, ‘Anya’ and others, French weaves their narrative into footage uncovered by activists. Footage that leaves the viewer stunned, angry, and dismayed at the lack of any global justice. While in turn asking why there remains a global indifference to state-orchestrated torture and murder. With events in Chechnya easily traced back to 2017, with denials from both Putin and Kadyrov. Denials ultimately made through smiles, laughter, and open dismal of the existence of LGBT people. While the links to a gang led persecution across Russia from 2013 remain shrouded in silence. Ultimately creating a deeply emotional documentary that both celebrates the human desire for justice. While also shining a light on the abject horror of state-endorsed hate and violence.
But the heart of the film sits with the survivors rescued by the bravery of Isteev, Baranova and their colleagues. Each individual’s urgent fight for freedom and human rights echoing throughout every scene. As the camera allows space and time for both reflection, emotion and pain to be outed. Ultimately leading ‘Grisha’ to place his own safety at risk in speaking out publicly of his abuse. Revealing his true identity in front of journalists as he takes the brave step of launching a criminal case in Russia. The facial change software employed to protect him lifting as his real identity comes into focus. His bravery and the relentless need for justice providing us with a brief moment of hope.
Welcome to Chechnya is a harrowing but urgent journey into the horror of social cleansing in our 21st Century world. The evil of genocide and murder still alive in states where toxic masculinity and hate define acceptance and freedom. Shining a light on the flagrant persecution and murder of those deemed subhuman by leaders who wield power free of control. While reminding us all that our LGBTQ community is a global one; our duty wherever we live to protect our LGBTQ brothers and sisters.
Director: David France