There are no queer people in Chechnya — or that is what Ramzan Kadyrov, head of the insular Russian republic, would have the world believe. He also denies having launched a brutal anti-gay purge in the nation of nearly 1.5 million, but the startling HBO Films documentary Welcome to Chechnya (★★★★★) presents considerable evidence to affirm stories of LGBTQ people there being blackmailed, harassed, detained, tortured, maimed, and killed because of their sexuality.
Director David France, Oscar-nominated for his 2012 AIDS documentary How to Survive a Plague, deploys a fascinating clip from an interview with Kadyrov in full denial mode on HBO’s own Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel. Asked about the “alleged roundup, abduction, and torture of gay men in the republic,” the strongman’s body language is as dismissive and petulant as his response. “We don’t have such people here,” he says, before emphasizing his point. “We don’t have any gays.” Numerous LGBTQ Chechens and other Russians in the film disagree, with nearly all attesting that those captured are pressured to turn in ten others.
The film gains a thriller-tense momentum tracking the efforts of a network of resisters and refugees. Trans activist David Isteev, a crisis response coordinator working to get Chechens to a safe house in Moscow, ultimately hopes to shepherd his charges outside the borders of the Russian Federation. Under potentially deadly circumstances, he strategizes and carries out daring escapes, with the help of lesbian mom Olga Baranova, who oversees the safe house in the Russian capital. One of their clients, Anya, 21, had received an ultimatum from her uncle: sleep with him or be outed to her entire family. Her suspenseful journey to freedom begins with meeting Isteev’s undercover extraction team at a fast-food restaurant.
Before a concerned viewer has time to wonder about the safety of these courageous rebels exposing their operations and identities on camera, an onscreen title clarifies that “people fleeing for their lives have been digitally disguised.” The digital faces are passable, though they pose some hindrance to reading the flurry of emotions expressed by subjects like Grisha and Bogdan, a gay couple who are reunited in Moscow after Grisha is released from a Chechen prison. Isteev plans the pair’s escape to an unspecified location in the EU, although they’ll have to bring along Grisha’s frightened mother, sister, and nephew.
Even the refugees who escape aren’t free, and neither are their families. As long as they can testify to the truth of what’s happening, they pose a severe risk to the regime’s campaign of denial. One of the refugees covered here does go public, though, taking their case before the Committee Against Torture in the hopes of triggering an official investigation by the Russian Federation. At that point, the film drops their digital disguise, at last revealing the person’s true identity, and the brave, unmasked face of a hero.
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