This is a spoiler-free article but it should be known that this film comes with a trigger warning. 'Welcome to Chechnya' contains strong violence and real footage of gay bashing.
Welcome to Chechnya is a 2020 HBO documentary that explores the detainment, torture, and purge of LGBTQ+ people in Chechnya by the Chechen government.
Chechnya is a small republic located in southwestern Russia, where mass detention of gay men and women occurs regularly only to be swiftly covered up and denied by its leader. By order of the Chechen government, gay people are kidnapped, tortured, and interrogated for information they may have on other Chechen homosexuals. Chechnya’s leader is Ramzan Kadyrov, defender of "honor killings", founder of the Akhmat Fight Club, and son of former Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov. Granted the freedom to rule however he wishes, Kadyrov has pledged undying allegiance to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Under Kadyrov’s leadership, Chechnya has become a palace of human rights abuse—including, but not limited to, gender-based discrimination, the equation of human rights activism with terrorism, and the extrajudicial detainment and subsequent torture of government critics and those suspected of being gay. There has also been widespread suspicion of involvement in several assassinations, including the 2009 assassination of Kadyrov’s former bodyguard, Umar Israilov, who publicly stated that Kadyrov tortured him. Also in 2009, Sulim Yamadayev, Kadyrov’s political rival, was shot and killed in Dubai, with a Chechen politician close to Kadyrov accused of supplying the murder weapon. With Russian funding and Putin’s support, Kadyrov has created something of a “legal grey zone” in which his word is the law (if Kadyrov says an event did not occur, history will say it simply did not occur).
Several thousand Chechens have attempted applying for asylum in countries such as Germany, Poland, and the EU, but seeking refuge is an uphill battle. These refugees, who are typically victims of torture and on the run from death threats, try to escape this dangerous government to find a better life for their families, but are rejected asylum at the border and ordered to go back to Russia or Chechnya.
In January 2019, the New York Times reported:
“Security forces in the Russian region of Chechnya have again cracked down on gay people… Since late last year, two gay men have been killed and about 40 men and women who are either homosexual or suspected of being homosexual have been detained in a makeshift prison, according to the rights group, the Russian LGBT Network.” –Andrew E. Kramer
In a 2017 interview, when asked about reports of the detainment of gay men in Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov smiles unabashedly, strokes his long beard, and responds with:
“This is nonsense. We don’t have those kinds of people here. We don’t have any gays. If there are any, take them to Canada. Praise be to god. Take them far from us so we don’t have them at home. To purify our blood, if there are any here, take them.”
Below is a clip from this interview:
After receiving some attention from foreign governments and the United Nations, arrests of Chechen gay people have gradually subsided. However, this does not stop the extreme social conservatism of the Chechnya Kadyrov has built. Harassment, abductions, and torture continue and are covered up as victims are silenced.
Welcome to Chechnya explores the Russian LGBT Network, a group of activists who shelter and evacuate LGBT people from Chechnya and greater Russia. The Network assists in the process of seeking refugee status and asylum abroad before the Chechen government can catch those on the run. For several months, escapees are hidden and relocated to various safe houses in disclosed locations, using connections made via international LGBT groups.
Since 2017, the Russian LGBT Network has assisted in protecting and relocating more than 140 Chechen gay people. Many of the escapees have emigrated to Europe and Canada, with none granted asylum in the United States.
“Imagine in the 21st century, in a supposedly secular country, you have cases where people are killed simply because they are homosexual, where they are maimed, where the families of these people are urged to kill their children and siblings. It’s unreal. It is a disgrace to be gay [in Chechnya]. And for a family to find out that someone is gay—It is a shame so strong, it can only be washed away in blood." —David Isteev, Crisis Response Coordinator of the Russian LGBT Network.
With visual effects, faces are digitally disguised, and voices are altered to protect the identities of escapees. The film is upfront about this effect in the opening. In an interview with Digital Trends, visual effects supervisor Ryan Laney explains:
“We wanted to make sure the audience would be aware of where we were touching pixels, and that came from a couple of angles. One was this idea of media integrity, because this is a journalistic project. Changing faces in a blockbuster film is no big deal, but when you’re talking about journalism, it’s a different story. We wanted to be honest and upfront about what we were doing.”
On the surface, this effect may have some kinship with the technology used for deepfake videos, a dangerous trend used to spread false news stories and fake celebrity videos online.
“Obviously, we wanted to disguise the people in the film in ways that would make them feel comfortable to participate and tell their stories, knowing that they are literally being hunted around the globe in order to keep them from speaking. We began approaching the question about how to disguise them very indirectly, and certainly not having anything to do with deepfakes.” –David France, director of Welcome to Chechnya
The faces used in Welcome to Chechnya were lent by a group of New York activists. After months of trial and error, the visual effects team had rendered satisfying digital disguises. To many audiences, this effect has the danger of veering into the uncanny valley—of looking something like a person but not entirely realistic, similar to a video game character. The face-swapping method is gradually introduced as we meet the first group of refugees, and although perhaps odd at first, it works. It is successful in disguising without being distracting. This technological use is unprecedented activism that offers a shield to those involved without risking their identities, so they may safely tell their stories.
Welcome to Chechnya made the shortlists for the Academy Awards for Best Visual Effects and Best Documentary Feature but did not receive a single nomination (which I believe to be one of the largest Oscar snubs of 2021).
There are about six brief scenes in the film that contain real footage of LGBT people getting harassed and beaten. Three of these are less than ten seconds long and occur in sequence about 16 minutes into the film. The first of the slightly longer videos occurs four minutes into the film, introduced with text stating: "Video intercepted by LGBT activists". There is a second video with the same preface that occurs about two-thirds into the film, and a third which occurs one hour, 18 minutes, and 50 seconds into the documentary and contains graphic footage of a *trigger warning* kidnapped individual getting raped. Also included within the narrative of the film is the aftermath of a failed suicide attempt. While absorbing such a film as Welcome to Chechnya, I feel a mountain of emotions. I remember feeling shock, but it's more than shocking. It's beyond comprehension--or at least it should be.
Documented human suffering is never easy to view or read about and is understandably triggering for many people, but it can be educational, and education is a key to change. An overwhelming amount queer people worldwide (and in my own country) have it far worse than I could imagine, and documentaries such as Welcome to Chechnya bring issues to light that certain groups of people would never see.
As Americans, we like to think, “we’ve come so far”, and thanks to the relentless perseverance of LGBTQ+ activists, there is, in the United States, protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing, and schools. This is not complete constitutional protection, and there is still much to be done in achieving trans rights, voting rights, and abortion rights. There is still so much to be learned, protested, condemned, abolished, and overturned.
As a film, Welcome to Chechnya is practically a non-stop thrill ride. Scenes in which activists from the Russian LGBT Network are transporting people through security borders are beyond adrenaline-pinching. There is no adjective for this kind of intensity—the filmmaking makes you feel the urgency of this subjectivity with every phone call made and every corner turned.
Welcome to Chechnya is an emotionally draining documentary that amplifies voices speaking out against the Chechen gay purge and has the power to educate. The heroic actions of the Russian LGBT Network are inspirational, and such a documentary, though upsetting to digest, is a much-needed lesson in human rights and political corruption. This is a documentary that must be seen, talked about, and spread throughout the globe.
Welcome to Chechnya is available to stream on HBO Max.
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