“We don’t have such people here,” declares Ramzan Kadyrov, chuckling to himself. “We don’t have any gays.” The head of the Chechen Republic is talking to David Scott of the HBO show Real Sports, and his assertions were more or less echoed by Russian officials when they addressed the U.N. in regards to a litany of human-rights violations. When pressed further about allegations of persecuting homosexuals in his country, Kadyrov wearily counters with: “They made it up.”
Most filmmakers would kick off an investigative look at LGBTQ rights in the former Soviet Union with this clip; David France’s investigative documentary Welcome to Chechnya (premiering tonight on, coincidentally, HBO) goes against the grain and introduces the exchange right around the halfway mark instead. It is not a coincidence. By the time we hear the strongman leader say these things, we’ve already witnessed “intercepted” footage of gay men and women being harassed, threatened, beaten and raped. We’ve heard testimonies from people who have been entrapped, abducted, imprisoned, tortured for days, and forced to give the names of other such “enemies of the state.” We know that such people exist — of course they exist — in Chechnya, and we know that the powers that be know as well. What makes the placement of this conversation so chillingly effective is not just the fact that it proves Kadyrov’s dimissiveness is bullshit, which most sane people would have already gleaned. It’s that it reiterates the stakes and the urgency in fighting what else is said in that interview. “Take them far away from us,” he says. “They are for sale. They are subhuman. To purify our blood, if there are any here, take them.”
This is what faces gay, lesbian, and transgender Chechens on a daily basis — both a denial of their humanity and an active, aggressive effort to erase them entirely. A former journalist turned documentarian, France has gone broad in examining the early days of responding to the AIDS epidemic (How to Survive a Plague) and narrow in looking back on the murder of a gay-rights pioneer (The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson). His latest splits the middle, toggling between how Chechnya, with the tacit support of Mother Russia and Vladimir Putin, have waged a campaign to punish and “purge” homosexuals, and following two Chechens fleeing the country before they’re outed and/or killed. The throughline between all of France’s work has been activism, and his decision to embed with David Isteev, the Crisis Response Coordinator of the Russian LGBT Network, and Olga Baranova, the director of the Moscow Community Center for LGBT+ Initiatives, gives audiences a first-hand sense of how these organizations operate and the part they play.
The sense of danger experienced by these underground-railroad facilitators, the people who use them and the director himself himself is palpable; more than one person described Welcome to Chechnya as the equivalent of a “docu-thriller” after its premiere at Sundance this past January. And the you-are-there feeling you get from stepping into these safe houses and tensely standing in line at checkpoints helps stave off the wish that the film went a bit deeper into how the stage was specifically set for Chechnya’s social devolution into anti-gay thuggishness. As far as complaints go, it’s minor at best: The film isn’t trying to be a history lesson so much as a call to action. Other than the newsreels of Kadyrov menacingly preening in public, everything feels as if it’s happening in a fraught, frightening present tense. (Emphasis on “tense.”)
And while there initially isn’t much background on the two fugitive subjects — the 30-year-old “Grisha” and the 21-year-old Muslim lesbian “Anya” — you quickly understand why. It bears mentioning that all of the LGBTQ subjects attempting to find passage out of the Eastern bloc have their faces digitally “masked,” a safety measure that introduces an uncanny-valley element into the mix. The nagging feeling of witnessing fuzzy-edged deepfakery takes a while to get used to, though you understand the practicality of it. (Ditto the meta-narrative aspects: They are stuck in limbo because they are not allowed to show their real selves to the world without risking life and limb.) Without spoiling anything, we are eventually allowed to see one brave soul come forward to testify against the government-sanctioned torture — at which point you see the “mask” fade away and reveal the person’s unaltered face and identity. There’s a momentary flash of uplift, followed by the nausea that accompanies knowing someone has just stepped into the crosshairs.
Yet it’s important to France that his subject’s willingness to step into the spotlight, and the clandestine efforts to combat the Chechen government’s attempt at genocide overall, gets as much screen time and lip service as the terror on display. Welcome to Chechnya is a horror movie, but it’s also a collective profile in courage. You can’t say that “such people” are not here. They are, and they’re not just heroes, the movie suggests. They’re the last thing standing between survival and a purge.