Welcome To Chechnya


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Welcome to Chechnya
"By pushing us into the day-to-day stress of the organisation, France gives a palpable sense of the desperation many of those fleeing feel." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Deepfake technology - which can be used to replace someone's face with someone else's likeness - has, understandably, had a lot of negative press in the era of "fake news" but David France's urgent investigative documentary shows that it can also be used as a force for good.

Digital "face doubling" is used to disguise the identity of many of the subjects of his film - and with good reason, as we learn that LGBT people in the southern Russian republic of Chechnya are facing a very real existential threat at the hands of leader Akmad Kadyrov, even after they've left the country. A sort of Vladimir Putin Mini-Me, his forces are intent on "cleansing the country" of anyone who identifies as LGBT and we see him chillingly declare in an interview that "we don't have any gays".

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France - who says this "completes the trilogy" of his films concerning "outsider activism" following How To Survive A Plague and The Life And Death Of Marsha P Johnson - was partially spurred to make it after reading Marsha Gessen's New Yorker report The Gay Men Who Fled Chechnya's Purge. His film thrusts us into the thick of an impromptu network that sprung up in 2017 in response to an escalation of orchestrated attacks on the gay community. The seizure of a phone, the film claims, led to the discovery of gay messages and images that resulted in a beat down and set in motion a policy of torturing gay men and women until they revealed further names to be scooped up and brutalised.

David Itseev became a co-ordinator of the underground that helped to spirit people out of Chechnya to Russian safe houses and, in tandem with international organisations, on to asylum in other countries. Through the course of the film we'll see both how difficult and dangerous this is as we watch his team, including the equally determined and fearless Olga Baranova,  attempt to 'rescue' "Anya", the daughter of a Chechen politician who faces an honour killing if her sexual preferences are revealed to her family. Emotion thrums through all the human interaction here but France also judiciously uses sickening snippets of phone recordings of attacks on LGBT Chechens that bring home the horror of what gay people face in the country.

The other main subject of the film is "Grisha" - whose real identity is revealed late in the film as the digital artifice melts away - a Russian citizen tortured in Chechnya, whose whole family becomes a target and whose bravery becomes a bright light in a sea of sorrow. By pushing us into the day-to-day stress of the organisation, France gives a palpable sense of the desperation many of those fleeing feel and the trauma that they experience as they confront not just the physical aftermath of torture but the mental anguish of knowing they will have to leave their entire lives behind in order to survive. The rawness of the footage also captures the sheer courage of everyone involved as they strive to stand in the face of government-sanctioned killings. This is, by its nature, a scrappily shot film, but if anything that adds to rather than detracts from its immediacy.

France's film is a reminder that the global fight for equal rights is far from over - and that it's the responsibility of other countries to ensure human rights abuses aren't simply left to thrive.

Reviewed on: 16 Jun 2020
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Welcome To Chechnya packshot
This searing investigative work shadows a group of activists risking unimaginable peril to confront the ongoing anti-LGBTQ pogrom raging in the repressive and closed Russian republic.

Director: David France

Year: 2020

Runtime: 107 minutes

Country: US

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