A disheveled man paces as he chain smokes in a nondescript courtyard. He keeps checking his phone. Finally it rings. The caller is a young woman, desperate and scared. Her uncle has found out that she’s a lesbian. Her father, a high ranking official in the country, does not know. If he did, he’d have her killed. Her uncle has demanded that she becomes his personal comfort woman, otherwise he will reveal her secret, which would mark her for death. If she doesn’t flee, her life is over.
“Don’t move,” the smoking man says. “We’re coming to get you.”
The man is David Isteev, one of the people working to help young Chechens flee the country that has become hell for them. The woman is only recognized under a code name, “Anya.”
This is not the opening to an exciting political thriller set in a fictional land. It’s a very real and urgent call to arms as the systemic genocide of LGBTQ individuals continues in Chechnya. The resulting documentary, WELCOME TO CHECHNYA, depicts with unflinching honesty the horrors and atrocities perpetrated on a daily basis, and the heroism of those who choose to leave their homes and those who stay to fight.
WELCOME TO CHECHNYA comes with the highest of content warnings. There are multiple intercepted videos featuring acts of violence so horrific they left me with nightmares for days. A man is violently raped by his kidnappers; a woman is bludgeoned to death at a remote gas station, and a hysterically crying youth is beaten and mutilated. This is still only a fraction of what is taking place right now. It should traumatize us into action. Anything less would be too easy to brush away. The images seen will sear into the mind.
Worse are the unseen crimes, the ones that are left open. Disappearances are daily occurrences and most are never seen again; others are found in unmarked graves or dumpsters. Every empty street and vacant building is filled with the suffocating presence of those gone missing.
Working as a modern day underground railroad, The Russian LGBT Network risks their lives on a daily basis to find sanctuary for those being persecuted by their nation. What began in 2017 as a drug bust soon escalated into a full blown operation to eradicate homosexuals and transgender people from the country. Under the watchful eye of a Putin installed government and mainly the cartoonish sack of evil, Ramzan Kadyrov, nobody suspected is safe even in broad daylight.
Older footage of him being interviewed by the HBO talk show Bryant Gumbel shows a glimpse of the casual monstrosity. Realizing the film crew isn’t there to talk about sport, Kadyrov’s practiced gregariousness fades away and a delighted cackle creeps in. It’s the kind of maliciousness someone perfects when they know they can get away with murder. “We don’t have gays in this country,” he says in all seriousness. The implication is clear.
Much of the footage is shot underarm and through hidden cameras. Anything else would expose its subjects to too much danger. Sophisticated technology disguises the features of everyone involved. Only a brave few go without masks. Nobody uses their real names if they can help it. Such an act would invite violence and death on not just them, but also their families. Midway through an exhausting extradition process a locally famous singer vanishes during his tour in Chechnya.
He, like thousands of others, is most likely dead. Tortured and murdered by the Chechen police who operate without oversight. One of the survivors, going by the name of Grisha, details his experience in their hands which he miraculously survived. Kidnapped during a day trip to Chechnya, Grisha was held and tortured for 12 days in an attempt to get him to name other LGBTQ people in the country. His story is the secondary main focus in the documentary, as he and his boyfriend and family attempt to flee the country to somewhere safer in Europe.
Safety doesn’t come easily as most countries still refuse to accept that a purge is taking place in Chechnya. Some, like America, openly refuse to grant asylum for refugees. Only the weakest efforts of lip service have been offered, nothing that would make a giant like Russia take notice.
WELCOME TO CHECHNYA, directed by David France, is a long, arduous journey into that frustration. Advances are made rarely, none miraculous, and not all who are helped survive. There’s deep hurt in the voices of those without a country as they ask themselves what they will do now. Grief drives others to attempt suicide and it’s with horror that we watch how worry over their friend is overtaken by fear that this will draw attention to their hideout. It’s impossible to fully relate to this terror, but France’s intimate portrait does a good job of communicating most of it.
France’s documentary doesn’t offer solutions because there are none to be found. Right now the situation is dire and worse, it’s spreading. Bolstered by their free reign in Chechnya, neighboring republics have begun to display the same behavior. If anything this documentary serves as a cry for help, one that other countries would take to heart and extend refuge and political pressure to save as many as they can.
WELCOME TO CHECHNYA is a testament to how insidiously this monstrous thinking can take shape and how, when unchecked, it can spread into every aspect of society.
Considering how in Finland our extremist political parties openly deny LGBTQ issues being a human rights question, it is increasingly vital that this documentary be seen here far and wide. Especially on a governmental level, before it’s too late.