There’s a moment in Welcome to Chechnya, the new documentary film from writer/director David France, when the head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, proclaims to an American journalist that there are no gays or lesbians in Chechnya. He says it proudly with a self-satisfied grin. It’s a homicidal little smile that says, “At least, we don’t have any who would admit it because they would be killed.”
Kadyrov is a hard-line supporter of Vladimir Putin, and that undying loyalty gives him one very important thing: total autonomy when it comes to governing the internal policies of the Chechen Republic. His military police is empowered to snatch LGBTQ people off the streets and torture them to learn the identities of other closeted citizens. Think McCarthyism with electric shocks, beatings … and murder.
When people “confess” to their LGBTQ status, they are returned to their families who are expected to remove the “stain” on their reputation by killing their LGBTQ loved ones. The murder will never be investigated. They just disappear, and no questions are asked. The best part for Kadyrov is the government can’t be blamed for the killings because the government isn’t committing the murders.
Welcome to Chechnya is a boots-on-the-ground journalistic account of this systematic purge of LGBTQ citizens in the Chechen Republic and the efforts of a network of activists who are committed to helping these victims of persecution flee Chechnya to lead a normal life in another country.
The film plays like something out of a spy novel. The activist network has a series of safe houses, access to document forgers, and operatives in countries outside of Russia. They can scoop you off the street, provide you with a new identity and have you on a plane to a new life in days…if everything goes according to plan.
The film plunges its audience into the day-to-day operation of this modern-day Underground Railroad, and we follow a variety of LGBTQ men and women as they attempt to escape the dangerous confines of the Chechen Republic. The appearances of the network leaders and the “characters” they are assisting have been digitally altered for their safety. Some make it to safety, and some lose their nerve, returning to their families and an uncertain fate.
One of the surprising themes that surfaces during the film is the strong patriotism these LGBTQ men and women feel toward a country that would literally like to see them exterminated. The film centers on two men who have been involved in a clandestine romantic relationship for years. One of them was abducted and brutally tortured by government operatives, but when he was returned to his family, they did not kill him. Instead they conspired to leave the country with him.
Despite these horrifying circumstances, both men are sad to be leaving their home, as if a part of who they are will be left behind forever. Through this “storyline”, Welcome to Chechnya becomes a look at all of the identities that make people who they are, not just sexual identity.
Welcome to Chechnya is astonishing old school investigative reporting. We never hear David France or his assistant Igor Myakotin discuss their personal safety and welfare, but we can only assume they would have been subject to torture and arrest if they were exposed and apprehended during filming. They could not use traditional cameras and sound crews. They used a pair of iPhones and other compact equipment to document their immersion in this world. France was concerned about the quality of the audio being captured by their lo-fi approach, but they were fortunate that the raw audio from their cell phone footage proved to be enough.
Secrecy is the life blood of governmental regimes that sponsor crimes against humanity like those documented in Welcome to Chechnya. This important piece of work shines a light on a corner of the globe where it can be examined and scrutinized. If not for investigative journalists and documentarians like David France, this kind of evil would still thrive in the shadows. It’s a powerful, necessary piece of documentary filmmaking.