‘Welcome to Chechnya’: A Review


Courtesy of HBO

Departing the Shelter in ‘Welcome to Chechnya.’

Footage from a cellphone, held shakily by a spectator, interrupts the narrative of the documentary, punctuating it with a clip of a gang that is brutalizing two young Chechen men, mid-kiss. Through a crunchy, distilled audio, the band of men screams vitriolic and violent slurs at the boys who they ruthlessly torture. The boys on film are gay, Chechen teenagers, victims of vicious hate crimes. These “intercepted by activist” videos that are peppered throughout are part of a massive scheme of anti-gay sentiment in Chechnya, a scheme that includes government-sanctioned “gay purges” that have targeted hundreds of LGBTQ citizens since April 2017. 

David France’s documentary, Welcome to Chechnya, strings together guerilla-style footage, like this scene, intercepted by activists chronicling the brutality committed against Chechens suspected of being gay, and real-time footage captured by France and his team, chronicling the work of the activists who are working to find refuge for gay Chechens displaced by the government-sanctioned purges. 

At the center of the film are two fugitives who go by the alias names Grisha and Anya. Grisha, a gay Russian citizen who found himself in Chechnya for journalistic purposes, was caught and tortured by Chechen officials, and eventually he became the only refugee to go public about his experience. Anya is a lesbian whose uncle found out about her sexuality and threatened to tell her father, a member of the Chechen government. Both were fleeing with the help of activists Olga Baranova and David Isteev of the Russian LGBT Network, the true heroes of a film that applauds the work of these activists urgently responding to the crisis.

Courtesy of HBO
Activists David (left) and Veronika (right) planning a rescue mission for the Russian LGBT Network.

 France wasn’t the first to chronicle these atrocities. In April 2017, an article in an independent Moscow publication, Novaya Gazetta, exposed the Chechen purges, and revealed that more than a hundred queer Chechens had been arrested and at least three killed. But America didn’t quite turn its head and pay attention until later that year, when Masha Gessen wrote a piece in The New Yorker telling the stories of Chechens who were tortured and forced to give the names of anybody they knew who identified as homosexual (there really isn’t a blueprint for being gay in Chechnya; most of the targeted people are married and have had to hide their identities). The Chechen government then targeted and attempted to arrest anyone who they’d heard come out of the mouths of other tortured victims.

It was an urgent situation that necessitated a storyteller willing to risk his own safety to capture and amplify the story. Or at least a storyteller who didn’t heed the fear. France, in fact, says he didn’t fully recognize what he’d be risking by taking on this project. “I didn’t start with any fear,” he said. “I never worked in Russia; I didn’t have what I understand now is a very healthy and necessary paranoia about working there, so I went with a sort of vague, naive innocence.” Anticipating a slow setup, he went for a three-day fact-finding trip in which he expected to scope out the scene and come back with a better idea of how to progress. He ended up staying for a month. “It was just exploding,” said France. 

 There was no precedent for how to move forward. Normally, France explained to me, long-form journalism and documentary filmmaking for projects like these require a process called “casting,” where the creators spend time physically in the space of the issue, deciding what story to follow and whose perspective to center. For France, there was none of that. “It became really clear that the ‘cast’ was already on the ground and present,” he said. “And it was time for me to start telling their stories.” The result: this film, one of a triptych of documentaries that France has created to highlight the work of activists in moments of queer crises is a modern muckraking feat, and brings vital and critical images to the mainstream (it will stream on HBO) and the big screen (it debuted at Sundance Film Festival).  

“It became really clear that the ‘cast’  was already on the ground and present,” director David France said. “And it was time for me to start telling their stories.”

Courtesy of HBO
Grisha (one of the refugees targeted by the purges) hugs his boyfriend at the airport.

With his first two films,  How to Survive a Plague, 2012, and The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, 2017, David France established himself as a teller of queer stories that too often get swept under the rug. As an investigative journalist, author, and filmmaker, he uses his voice as an artist to make noise about stories that others stray away from for fear and discomfort. 

Along with finding its place among his triptych, the film needed to accomplish a second difficult task: visually depicting the brutality and genocidal homophobia in Chechnya, while protecting and ensuring the safety of the refugees and creating an emotional work that would resonate with viewers. For France, the question became, how can a filmmaker capture the raw emotion of a story without showing the faces or identities of his characters? For example, when Grisha reunites with his boyfriend, Bogdon (name also changed for the purpose of safety), France wanted his audience to feel the erupting love of reunion and the simultaneous pain of the unspoken but achingly present years of separation.

Portraying this intimacy was intrinsic to the film’s narrative, so, instead of blurring the faces, as has been done in the past, France’s team developed and relied on a new AI/CGI technology, which disguised the faces of the refugees by laying faces of queer activists over them, which adopt the facial movements and expressions of the person underneath. The technology isn’t seamless, but the raw quality works in his favor, feeling necessary to its goal. The audience can still empathize with and imagine the emotions of the targeted individuals, but be aware of the danger that these characters are in. In this way, the technique also emphasizes the brutality and far-reaching grasp of the Chechen government. The expression of the victim’s identities is at stake along with their safety.

This technique is at its most powerful, when, in the film, Grisha comes forward with a public testimony, we learn that his real name is Maxim Lapunov. And as he delivers his experiences, his technologically produced mask fades to reveal his face underneath in an extremely powerful and emotional moment. 

The film manages to be polemic, urgent, intimate, angering, and personal. It is a vital piece of queer history.

The film manages to be polemic, urgent, intimate, angering, and personal. It is a vital piece of queer history.