Caucasus Kino #1: Welcome to Chechnya (2020)

Credit: David France, HBO Films

“It’s not about the country. We fled because of the people. It happens in every country. A person gets some power…and starts abusing it.”

This review is spoiler-free.

TW/CW: Welcome to Chechnya is as much a film as it is a call to action. This documentary features uncensored depictions and detailed discussions of torture, extrajudicial kidnappings, “honor killings,” sexual assault, self-harm, and anti-LGBT violence. Those who are sensitive to this content should be familiar with this beforehand and practice self-care as needed.

Before discussing the content, it is crucial to applaud the achievement of using “deepfake” AI technology to provide a relative degree of anonymity to the subjects while maintaining the integrity of the emotions expressed. Although it may be distracting at first, it is wholly vital to the effectiveness of the film. It is the first documentary that I have seen to seamlessly employ such technology and must be praised for taking the risk — and yielding such revolutionary results. I truly believe that Welcome to Chechnya’s style will impact the future of filmmaking and set a precedent for similar documentaries on topics regarding human rights abuses, true crime, and other subjects that require interviewees to remain anonymous.

David France’s Welcome to Chechnya is a necessary, yet agonizing experience that brings the anti-LGBT purges in Chechnya, the North Caucasus, and Russia at large to the forefront for mainstream audiences. This film is an in-depth examination of anti-gay forced disappearances in Chechnya — allegedly at the order of Ramzan Kadyrov — and the Kremlin’s complicity in human rights abuses on an international scale.

However, as much as this is a film about the political culture of the Chechen Republic and an indictment of Kadyrov’s leadership — it really isn’t.

As much as you would expect Kadyrov to be the main point of focus, he is not. France does not give him the chance to justify himself, nor does the film propagandize or romanticize any aspect of his administration which is so often portrayed as comical, mysterious, or bizarre on social media. No thanks to Kadyrov’s personal Instagram account, of course.

This is a film about the heroism of LGBT activists in Russia, the international network of support for victims fleeing persecution in the North Caucasus, and the humanity of those just trying to live their lives — free of the threat of violence, harassment, and a state-sponsored terror campaign as a result of personal identity.

The two main subjects of this film — “Grisha” and “Anya” — are LGBT-identifying individuals who are fleeing persecution at the hands of the Chechen Republic’s secret police force — the Kadyrovtsy.

Ramzan Kadyrov’s personal militia.

“Grisha” — an ethnically Russian man in his early 30’s — was working in Grozny when he was detained, interrogated, and tortured following an online sting operation targeting gay men in the republic. “Anya” — a teen who openly identifies as a lesbian — is fleeing a potential “honor killing” at the hands of her father. Her uncle had threatened to murder her if she refused to have sex with him to “prove her heterosexuality.”

Welcome to Chechnya follows their escape from the Chechen Republic, their coordination with a number of pro-LGBT organizations in Russia and abroad, and the outcomes of potential criminal investigations, asylum requests, and movements into hiding — as well as uncertainty about the future. France often leaves questions about the fates of the subjects unanswered, as the developing legal battle in the European Court of Human Rights and international reaction to human rights abuses in Chechnya are a fluid, constantly changing situation that has no foreseeable outcome.

As someone with an in-depth understanding of the North Caucasus and a career of extensive research into Chechnya, I was initially skeptical about the scope and specificity about the film’s investigation.

I was surprised, intrigued, and deeply disturbed.

Welcome to Chechnya is an incredible, urgent call to action for both experts and newcomers alike. Without divulging any spoilers as to the fates of “Grisha” and “Anya,” I can assure you this — the fight for truth it not over. No matter how bleak this film’s outcome may be, or how relentlessly intense its pace is from the opening sequence, this chapter in history is far from over.

David France treats his subjects with such care that his empathy for their struggle is as transparent as his concern.

Conducting any kind of investigation into the Chechen Republic is dangerous, occasionally lethal business and France goes to incredible lengths in order to preserve the identities, locations, and safety of everyone involved in this film’s production.

Although there is an early emphasis on graphic content in the beginning of the film, it serves as a sobering reminder that the struggles that LGBT people face in Chechnya are real — and the consequences of embracing your sexual orientation and gender identity could be deadly.

By the time this film finished production, human rights organizations in Russia have successfully evacuated 151 individuals fleeing persecution from the North Caucasus — however thousands of victims remains, and the number of losses innumerable.

I found myself crying throughout the film’s duration and for many hours after, prompting me to donate to organizations that are dedicated to pursue truth and justice in Russia. Even if you think you understand the severity of the LGBT crisis in Russia — or if you think you know all there is to publicly know about Kadyrov’s rule — there is always more to learn. I found myself humbled and inspired by the courage of this film and everyone involved.

With the exception of the initially disorienting AI technology, the emphasis on graphic violence, and the breakneck speeds at which the narrative unfolds, this film is ultimately the most effective and informative documentary about Chechnya to hit Western markets and will remain so for years to come.

I cannot comment on the veracity of the claims made in the lawsuits presented, nor the credibility of the evidence shown — no matter how verifiable it may seem — as both international and domestic investigations into the purges are ongoing — the allegations which are categorically denied by both Ramzan Kadyrov himself and the Kremlin.

I am sure that Welcome to Chechnya will inspire follow-up investigations into the issues presented — as well as updates on the fates of those featured. This is a vital documentary for anyone interested in human rights, LGBT issues, or Russian politics and will become a staple of the field in the future.

Here is the trailer:

Welcome to Chechnya is available to stream on all devices via HBO and HBO Go.

Rating: 9.0/10

Alexander Leslie is a foreign policy analyst, freelance journalist, and has an M.A. in Eurasian, Russian, & East European Studies from Georgetown University. His interests include U.S.-Georgia relations, energy politics, and studies in counterterrorism policy.

Contact: aejleslie@gmail.com

Follow me on Twitter!

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