David France is quickly becoming one of the best documentary filmmakers of our generation.
In 2012 he brought us the riveting How to Survive a Plague – about the early years of the AIDS epidemic and the ACT UP activists who fought for their lives. Then came 2017’s The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, about a well-loved drag queen and gay activist who was found dead off the West Side Piers in Manhattan in 1992. Now he brings us another important documentary for and about the LGBT community – Welcome to Chechnya.
The film follows David Isteev, who along with the Russian LGBT Network, helps gays and lesbians escape from Chechnya, a country where, in 2017, its government started a gay purge where over 100 men were (allegedly) detained and subject to torture, with many being murdered. This had kicked off because in February 2017 a gay Chechen man had been arrested for drug offences and arresting officers discovered contact information for other gay men on his phone. These men were caught, and they, in turn, turned over more names to the authorities, escalating to a point of crisis. But not only were these gay men subject to arrest and torture, Lesbians were also subject to the same fate.
In the documentary, David attempts, by all means, to free ‘Anya’ who is seeking help because her uncle has threatened to tell her father, who is a high-ranking Chechyan government official, that she is a Lesbian if she doesn’t have sex with him.
But the focus of this harrowing documentary is the Moscow safe house where these refugees are taken to temporary accommodation to play the waiting game until a country, any country, can take them in. The focus of the documentary is our hero 30-year-old Grisha. He was arrested and tortured in Chechnya but managed to escape, and left the country. But it left his family vulnerable to the authorities so they, in turn, were smuggled out of the country into a safe house.
Grisha is reunited with his boyfriend ‘Bogdan’ in scenes that are emotional and loving – these two men really care and love each other. But Grisha doesn’t want to remain silent and anonymous the rest of his life, he wants to come out publicly to expose the Chechnyan Government for the atrocities they inflicted on not just him but on perhaps what could be hundreds of victims.
The film also introduces us to the brave Olga Baranova, who helps the refugees in the safe house with any and all that they need. She is like a mom (she herself has a young son) to the occupants.
While Anya is successfully smuggled out of the country, she is placed in an apartment and told not to go out – but after three months it appears that she is getting extremely restless and very lonely.
Meanwhile Grisha and his family are quickly moved to another country after suspicious people knock on their door and threaten to come back the next day. It’s harrowing, and director France was very fortunate to have not only Grisha’s family but the others allow him to film them in, at times, situations that could’ve exposed them. Some airport scenes, filmed undercover, are nail biting.
All of the subjects in the film have had their faces digitally disguised to protect them. This is such the fear that they have. While Chechnya technically is a federal republic of Russia, it appears to have self and independent rule by Ramzan Kadyrov, who appears to have waged an operation to ‘cleanse the blood’ of LGBT Chechens. He is shown in interviews in the documentary denying there are any LGBT people in his country. But he is shown in a photo with Zelim Bakaev, a Chechen pop-singer, who, in August 2017 disappeared after going back to Chechnya to attend his sister’s wedding. His mother has demanded justice but the government has not even started an investigation. He is presumed dead.
France’s access to these people is just incredible. Also incredible is that over two years, the Russian LGBT Network has managed to resettle 151 people fleeing Chechnya, many of them coming through the shelter. Welcome to Chechnya is an important documentary not just for our community but for the world to know what exactly takes place in Chechnya to our own people.
Welcome to Chechnya
In Russian, Chechen and English with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes
Playing: 8 p.m. June 30 on HBO; also available on HBO Now and HBO Max BBC iPlayer.