Welcome to Chechnya: Gay Genocide in the Republic
Director of How to Survive a Plague brings us a new documentary on Chechnya’s gay purges.
“Oh my god, I had a sick night at the gay club on Friday…it was all booze, bears and bottom boiz,” said no gay guy in Chechnya ever.
But only because there are no gay guys in Chechnya — or any queer people, for that matter. At least, that’s what Ramzan Kadyrov, the regime’s callous leader, would have the world believe.
“We don’t have such people here. We don’t have any gays,” the smug beardsman insisted during a 2017 episode of HBO show, Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel. His extraordinary claim came in response to a question from reporter David Scott on the alleged state-sanctioned persecution of gay men.
Laughing, Kadyrov called the accusations “nonsense,” adding, “If there are any [gays, that is], take them to Canada. Praise be to God. Take them far from us so we don’t have them at home. To purify our blood, if there are any here, take them.”
And take them is exactly what a network of brave activists, led by Olga Baranova and David Isteev, tries to do in Welcome to Chechnya, a scathing new feature-length documentary on the Republic’s gravely underreported gay purges.
These vile efforts to cleanse Chechnya have seen its citizens abducted, murdered and sometimes sent to secret concentration camps solely based on their sexual orientation — or even just their perceived sexual orientation.
And the forms of torture queer or supposedly queer Chechens face at the aggressive hands of Kadyrov’s loyal dogs are unspeakable. Electrocution, believe it or not, is one of the least draconian.
“They put a rat on someone’s back and a pot over it,” one escapee says. “They heated the pot and the rat would claw through the back trying to get out.”
David France (the director behind How to Survive a Plague and The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson) follows the group as they place themselves in harm’s way to combat anti-LGBTQ violence and oppression in this real-life Gilead.
You might wonder why the victims don’t simply up-sticks and make for the safety of a liberal haven, but it’s not quite so simple. Those at the top often take and destroy their passports, making it impossible to leave the state through official channels. This forces victims to turn elsewhere for help.
Enter the activists.
Assisted by various international organizations, including almost every LGBTQ organization in the world, they push forward with an ongoing clandestine operation to help these people flee humiliation and danger.
The activists first get the victims to a crowded safehouse in Moscow — safe used in the loosest sense here. Lest we forget Moscow is the capital city of a country led by Vladimir Putin, an openly anti-queer autocrat who makes no apology for standing behind Kadyrov.
And then it’s onwards, to Canada or elsewhere, in the hope of finding some kind of displaced sanctuary in asylum.
While filming in Chechnya, France posed, in his own words, “as a ridiculous American tourist…a thrill-seeker.” His efforts paid off, and he can now tell the hair-raising stories of two major extraction attempts, which connect all other narrative elements of his must-see film.
Welcome to Chechnya is a tough watch, that’s for sure, and France makes sure we know how high the stakes are — the horrifying mutilations, rapes and murders awaiting these poor people if the group misfires — before we witness the escapes themselves. We see these through some gripping undercover footage caught on mobile phones and GoPro cams.
But this is life or death stuff we’re talking about, so through it all, the filmmaker protects his subjects’ anonymity using advanced AI-powered tech akin to that used to create deepfakes. This allowed him to film real people in the United States, capturing images the programme could then use to mask the faces of the victims. In many instances, France switched out their voices too.
The result of the facial transplants isn’t 100% convincing, features often blurred at the edges, but no harm, no foul. With well-meaning documentaries like this, critics are usually pretty charitable, rarely coming to pick apart technical elements. Instead, the goal is to spread the word about these egregious human rights abuses, which the media seem to have largely brushed under the rug.
And besides, there’s a powerful and unforeseen face-reveal, speaking to the courage and determination of the victims, which more than makes up for any technological coarseness.
Those of us with a platform, no matter how small, must now mirror that courage and determination, building on the work of France and the activists he followed to pull the rug away and expose the dark ugliness of Kadyrov’s tyrannical regime, one in which genocide is no less normal than meat dumplings.
We’d do well to remember this next time we fancy a grumble about our lives right now, diminished by France’s next documentary subject: Covid-19. I look forward to that, although the details are under wraps for now, but in the meantime, please watch Welcome to Chechnya and get involved in any way you can.
Watch the trailer here: