Photograph: HBO/BBC

Welcome to Chechnya: The Gay Underground Railroad

If you are a gay person in Chechnya you face one of two fates: If you are a man, you are kidnapped and tortured by the authorities. If you are a woman, you will be murdered by your own family, and the authorities will encourage it.

In 2017, reports started to emerge from the small mountainous republic of a brutal anti-gay purge. Gay Chechen men were being arrested in raids or suddenly “disappeared” to what have been described as “concentration camps”, where they were tortured to reveal the identities of other gay Chechens, only to be returned to their families half-dead. Amnesty International has warned that the threat posed to LGBT Chechens by their own families is just as great, as both men and women face so-called “honour killings” if their sexuality is discovered by their family. When asked about the reports, the Putin-approved Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov denied that there any gay people in Chechnya at all.

“This is nonsense. We don’t have those kind of people here. We don’t have gays…To purify our blood, if there are any here, take them.”

Presidend Ramzan Kadyrov to HBO reporter David Scott

Welcome to Chechnya follows the efforts of activists from Russia LGBT Network, fighting to provide a third potential fate – freedom. It’s a dangerous mission, but one which Academy Award Nominated director David France (How to Survive a Plague, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson) is the right man to chronicle their efforts and the experiences of the men and women they risked their own safety to smuggle LGBT Chechens to freedom. Russia LGBT Network has successfully relocated 151 Chechens abroad. This documentary follows the stories of a handful of them.

Chechen society is one where macho honour codes run deep. A homosexual relative is seen to offend the honour of the family, and killing them is seen as a way to cleanse the blood of the family and the nation. Even when someone has escaped Chechnya, or Russia altogether, they are still not safe from the Protecting the identity of the subjects of the documentary posed a significant challenge to France, who felt that commonly used techniques such as filming subjects in a darkened room dehumanised them and meant that their facial expressions – an important tool for allowing an audience to empathise with them – would be obscured. After six months of trying other methods which either rendered them emotionless or did not provide obscure their identities sufficiently, France and his team found a solution: digital face transplants.

Using the same deep-learning artificial intelligence used to create Deep Fakes, visual effects artists overlaid the faces of actors over those of the documentary subjects.The effect largely avoids the “uncanny valley” effect, although in some shots the survivors’ faces are covered with a fine haze. However, since Welcome to Chechnya is not going for complete visual realism, it doesn’t elicit the same uncomfortable response that the virtual actors in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story prompted. Instead, it is a reminder that the identities of these people have to be hidden for their own safety. When the disguise dissolves at the climax of the documentary, the effect is striking.

The fate of two young people who have faced unimaginable horrors make up the central narratives of the documentary. The film opens with “Anya”, a young Chechen woman, pleading with operative David Isteev to get her out. “Anya’s” uncle had discovered her forbidden sexuality, and presented her with an impossible ultimatum: have sex with him, or he will tell her father, who will kill her to “cleanse the family’s honour”. Her long, difficult extraction by the Russian LGBT Network feels like a heist movie, but the stakes are infinitely higher than in any fiction. Hidden cameras allow us to follow her journey with nail-biting proximity, while the barely surpassed terror in her digitally-disguised face.

The other thread we follow is that of “Grisha”, an ethnic Russian who was arrested and tortured while working in Chechnya in 2017. It’s upsetting to hear him speak warmly of the hospitality of the Chechen people, and his inability to fully comprehend how the people he had such admiration for were capable of such brutality. “Grisha” provides eyewitness accounts of how Chechen authorities assaulted their captives, his haunted expression but steely courage palpably clear through the digital disguise. His story is also one of immense bravery, as he grapples with the agonising prospect of going public with his allegations in the hope of finding justice, and the prospect of a live lived in hiding.

Because the problem is not unique to Chechnya. While gay Chechens face the threat of raids by the authorities, extra-judicial killings, imprisonment and torture, the situation for LGBT Russians is so dangerous that the Chechens extracted from the republic by Russian LGBT Network cannot even remain in their home country. In a documentary where the underlying threat or memory of violence is a constant presence, the moments when it is explicitly shown in graphic “trophy videos” are some of the most spine-chilling moments: gay Russians are shown being kicked in the head by men who hack off locks of their hair for trophies; one is held down and gang raped by assailants who cackle off camera as if they’re watching a comedy; in broad daylight, activists draped in a rainbow flag are set upon by people on the streets who tear them off their motorbike and kick them to the curve. The safe house operated by Russian LGBT Network is so clandestine that when a resident attempts suicide, operative Olga Baranova whether or not to call an ambulance and risk exposing the operation. Russia is a nation which is becoming increasingly hostile to LGBT rights.

As Isteev remarks towards the end of the film, if the persecution of LGBT people in Chechnya can extend to a concerted effort to eradicate them, then it is not difficult to imagine the same happening in the streets of Moscow. It means that “anyone can find themselves in the shoes of gay Chechens”. It’s a warning which is frighteningly credible. You only have to look within the European Union, to find that a third of Poland has been declared an “LGBT Free Zone” as President Duda rode a wave of homophobia to reelection on July 13 2020.

David France has built a career on pulsing, urgent documentaries about LGBTQ+ history which remind us how far we’ve come as a society and what it took to get there. Welcome to Chechnya is a painful reminder of how hard won those freedoms are, and the battles which still need to be fought. Let this documentary act as a wake up call. If we look away from what is happening in Chechnya, we may not notice the same thing creeping up on us in our own country.

Verdict: ★★★★★

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