'Welcome to Chechnya': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Sundance
A chilling account of state-sponsored gay genocide in the making.

David France's new documentary for HBO is a searing probe into the government-directed persecution, torture and killing of LGBTQ citizens from the Russian republic, chronicling the selfless work of rescue activists.

Documentarian David France's background as an investigative journalist has brought exacting research and robust narrative skills to LGBTQ subject matter, from the transitional breakthrough in HIV/AIDS treatment in How to Survive a Plague to the presumed murder of a pioneering transgender activist in The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson. In Welcome to Chechnya, his strengths as a filmmaker acquire heightened dramatic urgency by focusing on an ongoing human rights violation that seems unthinkable in the 21st century — the queer purge sanctioned by the brutal leadership of the southern Russian republic over the last few years.

Hard-hitting, emotionally charged and frequently distressing in both its first-person accounts of detention and torture and its glimpses of vicious anti-gay violence caught on video, the film will debut on HBO in June and should help draw attention to atrocities denied by their perpetrators and shrugged off by the Kremlin, which under Vladimir Putin hasn't exactly been shy about its own LGBTQ intolerance.

It also will surprise nobody that the Trump government has granted political asylum to exactly none of the 151 Chechens relocated as of this film's completion through the courageous work of a Moscow-based underground queer activist group. (The largest number has gone to Canada.) Their missions to evacuate persecuted Chechens — involving tense border crossings, periods of seclusion in safe houses, complicated refugee visa applications and in one case the uprooting of an entire at-risk family — bring elements of suspense, stirring heroism and the sobering realities of uncertain futures to this shocking report.

Inspiration for the film came from a 2017 New Yorker article by Masha Gessen, which revealed a campaign championed by Ramzan Kadyrov, the Putin-backed strongman running Chechnya by his own rules, to "cleanse" the country of gay men. That's to the extent that their existence is even openly acknowledged — during an interview on Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel, ostensibly about Kadyrov's enthusiasm for mixed martial arts, the Chechen leader was asked about reports of the roundup and torture. "We don't have any gays," Kadyrov responded with a smirk, calling the accounts fabrication.

However, wrenching personal stories and videos of homophobic violence reveal how gay men, lesbians and transgender people are considered a disgrace to the nation and a stain on families that can only be washed away with the blood of honor killings.

France traveled to Moscow several times over an 18-month period and shadowed the rescue activists, led by LGBTQ crisis intervention coordinator David Isteev and Olga Baranova, whose community operations include running a Moscow shelter for Chechen evacuees. Some 40,000 people whose sexual identities put them in danger remain in hiding, an estimate supported by the harrowing accounts of detention survivors, who describe listening to the screams of an endless series of people being brought in and tortured while they were in custody. To protect the identities of Chechens fleeing for their lives, France uses digital facial-disguise technology developed by VFX supervisor Ryan Laney.

One of the more chilling aspects of Chechnya's top-down genocidal campaign is the brutal practice of entrapment and forcing detainees to act as informants. The start is pinpointed to a routine drug arrest in early 2017, during which images of gay sex and related texts were found on the cellphone of one of the men apprehended, who was then tortured until he gave up names and contact information of other gay men, beginning an insidious chain reaction.

Among the principal figures whose ordeals are chronicled is a 30-year-old man initially identified as Grisha (false names are used for protection in the shelter system, given the long reach of Chechen thugs beyond domestic borders). A Russian event planner who was visiting Chechnya in a professional capacity when he was detained and tortured for 12 days, Grisha was released and later joined in Moscow by his long-term boyfriend before his family started being targeted with violent threats.

Following their removal to an undisclosed location in Europe, Grisha volunteers to step forward and bring attention to the anti-gay purge by taking his case to the Russian courts. (The transformation during this process from his digital mask to his real face is a powerfully symbolic image.) But legal authorities deny the motion to file criminal charges, pointing up the general indifference of the Putin government to LGBTQ injustices.

Another key case study is Anya, a 21-year-old lesbian whose uncle is blackmailing her to have sex with him, threatening to inform on her to her high-ranking government official father. Convinced she will be killed if that happens, Anya puts herself in the hands of the rescue activists and is removed to somewhere in Eurasia until her safety can be guaranteed. But the pressures of isolation and delays in the visa process cause her to flee. Her outcome remains unknown at the end of the film, as is that of Chechen pop singer Zelim Bakaev, who had been living in Moscow but disappeared at age 25 after being detained due to questions about his sexual orientation while in Grozny to attend his sister's wedding.

All this is chilling stuff, given trenchant treatment by France and his co-writer and editor Tyler H. Walk, who make judicious use of the score by brothers Evgueni and Sacha Galperine to heighten dramatic tension at appropriate moments. The film balances cold indignation over the barbarism being allowed to continue through scorching emotional impact in the personal stories.

There's deep sadness in a shelter resident's suicide attempt, or the revelation that Baranova was forced to seek political asylum for herself and her son outside Russia after her work helping LGBTQ Chechens made her a target, and raw horror in the video footage of vigilante violence. The worst of this shows a man screaming as he is held down and raped, while another clip cuts away just as a woman dragged from a car and beaten appears about to have her skull crushed by a family member brandishing a slab of concrete.

In all of his films, France has shown profound admiration for radical queer activists, whether it's the warriors mobilizing against the inaction of the medical establishment in the fight against AIDS, the trans trailblazers of the Stonewall movement or the Russians putting themselves at considerable personal risk to combat state-sanctioned Chechen atrocities. Whether or not you identify as queer, Welcome to Chechnya will leave you shaken by the evidence of an amoral autocracy taking extreme action under the hypocritical guise of religious purity.

Production company: Public Square Films
Distributor: HBO Documentary Films

Director: David France
Screenwriters: David France, Tyler H. Walk, inspired by the New Yorker article "Forbidden Lives: The Gay Men Who Fled Chechnya's Purge" by Masha Gessen
Producers: Alice Henty, Joy A. Tomchin, Askold Kurov, David France
Executive producers: Joy A. Tomchin, Neal Baer, Kevin Jennings, Masha Gessen, Jonathan Logan, Jess Search, Lekha Singh, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Alan Getz, Justin Mikita, Stan Tomchin, Nancy Abraham, Lisa Heller
Directors of photography: Askold Kurov, Derek Wiesehahn
Music: Evgueni Galperine, Sacha Galperine
Editor: Tyler H. Walk
Visual effects supervisor: Ryan Laney
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)

107 minutes