‘Welcome to Chechnya’ (REVIEW)

Welcome to Chechnya (2020)
HBO

Directed by: David France

The opening epigraph for David France’s documentary, Welcome to Chechnya, sets the tone for the ensuing 105 minutes: “For their safety, people fleeing for their lives have been digitally disguised.” The digital disguise is necessary, for the documentary’s primary focus is on the persecution of Chechnya’s LGBT community and the efforts made to smuggle them out of the country through the Rainbow Railroad, an international refugee network located in Canada dedicated to harboring LGBT refugees.

Those who are on the run in this film are not doing so lightly or cavalierly. One young man becomes despondent once he realizes that he will never be able to speak his native language again. Another attempts suicide in the shelter before he can escape. And even if there is a successful escape attempt, that’s no guarantee of permanent protection. Once a refugee makes their escape, they must spend an indeterminate amount of time at a safe house, where the pressures of isolation begin to take their toll. An activist forlornly mentions that the minimal human contact sometimes proves to be too much, and that it is not uncommon for them to lose contact with someone altogether.

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To LGBT refugees, this is all vastly preferable to continuing to live in Chechnya. The government of Chechnya’s strongman leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, has enthusiastically spearheaded a systemic campaign of persecution and violence against the country’s LGBT community. Most repellently, Kadyrov’s campaign encourages families to commit extrajudicial killings of gay relatives. In the opening sequence, a girl named “Anya” is forced to flee once her uncle discovers her sexuality and presents her with two impossible choices. The first is allowing him to force himself on her. Her second is that he tells her father, a powerful government official. 

Being outed, and the horrifying consequences therein, are depicted as well. In order to give an even greater sense of urgency to the flight of its members, the film occasionally depicts footage of various hate crimes committed against Chechnya’s LGBT community. The film thankfully doesn’t depict every single act of mob violence or gang rape depicted therein, but we don’t need to see them. The audio of a man crying in pain while those surrounding him laugh is all that is needed. Of all the searing depictions of homophobic violence, what will remain with me the longest are the ones the film doesn’t show.

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Welcome to Chechnya does not make for comforting viewing. But its unflinching honesty may make for necessary viewing. These anti-gay purges were only stories I had heard of through headlines or social media. Things that were easy enough to brush off. But in seeing the human faces of “Akhmad” or “Bogdan,” people fleeing for their lives for the people they have chosen to love, they become part of something that will stay with me for a very long time. 

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