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Thursday, July 16, 2020

Stream It Or Skip It: ‘Welcome To Chechnya’ On HBO, About Activists Who Help LGBTQ People

In this harrowing documentary, the purge of the LGBTQIA+ community in Chechnya is explained, and we follow two activists as they try to rescue as many people as they can from that republic.
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Welcome To Chechnya, directed by David France, documents one of the worst, and least widely-known, humanitarian crises of the last 15 years: The systematic purging of all LGBTQIA+ people from Chechnya, a mostly-Muslim state in the southern part of Russia. In the film, two activists from the Russian LGBTQ community — David Isteev, a crisis response coordinator for the Russia LGBT Network, and Olga Baranova, the director of the Moscow Community Center for LGBT+ Initiatives — work to help members of the LGBTQIA+ community escape Chechnya and, if they’re lucky, escape Russia altogether.

WELCOME TO CHECHNYA: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?

The Gist: Under Vladimir Putin’s rule, Russia’s government has become so intolerant of the LGBTQIA+ community that they’re often tracked down and beaten in the streets. But in Chechnya, whose Putin-supported leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, has been made famous by his wild social media posts and videos, it has been open season on the gay community since 2017.

There, Kadyrov has encouraged families to not only shun members who are suspected of being gay, they’re often encouraged to beat and sometimes even kill them, in an effort to “purify” the state. Gays are tortured until they give up the names of other members of the LGBTQIA+ they know, who then get captured and tortured as well. He’s openly told American journalists that there aren’t gays in Chechnya because they’ve been purged.

Isteev is working with a 21-year-old woman given the name “Anya” (names are changed and faces and voices are digitally altered to protect identities), whose uncle is threatening to out her to her family if she doesn’t have sex with him. Since her father is a highly-placed Chechen government official, she knows she will be killed if her family finds out she’s gay. The operation to get her out of Chechnya, and then out of Russia, was highly planned and executed like in an espionage thriller, but then Anya chafes when she realizes she’s going to have to be isolated in a tiny apartment for months until a country is willing to issue her a visa.

Baranova, who runs a shelter in Moscow that gives expatriated LGBTQIA+ people a safe place to stay while plans are made to send them out of the country, is working with “Grisha”, a 30-year-old event planner who isn’t ethically Chechen, but has been detained and beaten by officials there, and then was returned to Chechnya even after being released back to Moscow. Grisha’s boyfriend is flying down from the north to join him and his family, who will all be expatriated at some point. But when thugs come looking for Grisha at the safe house where his family lives, Baranova has to get them all out of the country, and fast.

Welcome to Chechnya still
Photo: HBO

What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Welcome To Chechnya fits in well with other films about the persecution of LGBTQIA+ individuals, like The Lavender Scare, but the most harrowing part of it is that this persecution — and purge — is happening now, in real time, and the Russian government is doing little to nothing to stop it.

Performance Worth Watching: Grisha, his boyfriend, and his family are all heroes here, not only for being willing to leave their country behind to protect him, but because Grisha eventually comes back to Russia to publicly file a complaint against Chechen officials for their treatment of gays. When we hear his real name — Maxim Lapunov — and see his real face the gravity of what he’s done is enormous.

Memorable Dialogue: Isteev: “Imagine, in the 21st century, in a supposedly secular country, you have cases where people are killed simply because they are homosexual, where the families of these people are urged to kill their children and siblings. It’s unreal.”

Sex and Skin: There are a number of disturbing shots of men who are bleeding after being beaten for the names of other gay people they know.

Our Take: Welcome To Chechnya is one of those films that people need to see, if only to make them aware of what is happening to the LGBTQIA+ population of Chechnya. While the general Russian attitude towards the gay and trans community is well-documented, for some reason the news media has not as extensively covered what is essentially the genocide of those communities in Chechnya. And to say this movie is harrowing is an understatement.

There are plenty of scenes that are difficult to watch, including videos leaked to the filmmakers by LGBTQIA+ activists, which depict family members beating an outed relative, someone torturing a man by slicing his hair off with a knife, another man being raped, and two men who are dragged out of their car by police because someone saw them kissing each other. But even the scenes where Lapunov and others in the Moscow shelter talk about their ordeals, and show pictures, are difficult, because, as Isteev says, it’s hard to believe that this is going on in the 21st century, right under our noses, and no one is lifting a finger to stop it.

Isteev and Baranova represent an LGBTQIA+ community in Russia that will not take this treatment lying down and their Herculean efforts to rescue people who are in imminent danger are remarkable to watch. It takes money and connections to help people escape these situations, and the work is tireless and endless. Seeing Isteev and Baranova doing this work, constantly under threat, shows how strong the community in Russia is. Though it was disheartening that Baranova herself had to escape, due to using her contact info to try to find a lesbian they were working with who was en route to the Chechan city of Grozny.

The digital face-altering effect used by France in this film (Neal Baer and Nancy Abraham are executive producers) has the proper impact: He makes no effort to try to reduce the soft-focus look and fuzziness around the faces of the people whose identities he altered. It’s there to remind you that these people are being hidden because they’re literally fleeing for their lives; which is why, when Lapunov’s real face is shown during his Moscow press conference, it’s almost shocking. That shock is what’s needed to get viewers to understand just what is going on in that area of the world.

Our Call: STREAM IT. Welcome To Chechnya is a heavy watch, but anyone that considers themselves (or aspires to be) well-informed should see it.

Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, VanityFair.com, Playboy.com, Fast Company.com, RollingStone.com, Billboard and elsewhere.

Stream Welcome To Chechnya on HBO Max

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