Welcome to Chechnya (2020) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Against the anti-gay purge in Chechnya

It is often scary and chilling to watch HBO documentary film “Welcome to Chechnya”, which gives us a close look into a small but significant human effort against the ongoing anti-gay purge in Chechnya. While it is surely heartening to see some brave acts of decency and compassion in the documentary, we are also reminded that there are still many people living in fear somewhere in Chechnya and other parts of of Russia just because of their sexuality, and we become more concerned as hoping more for the right ending of this grim and devastating situation of human rights violation.

After the opening scene focusing on a desperate call from one young woman living in Grozny, Chechnya, the documentary informs us on how things became suddenly worse for sexual minority people in Chenchnya in 2017. Like any other strongman figure willing to solidify his political power via cruelty and oppression, Ramzan Kadyrov, the current president of the Chechen Republic, openly targeted sexual minority people as a part of his ‘cleansing’ process for Chechnya and its people, and the brutality upon sexual minority people has frequently been condoned by him and his cronies. As reflected via a series of rough but undeniably gut-wrenching video clips in the documentary, many sexual minority people have been injured or killed on streets, and the Chechen government even has several special prisons where sexual minority people are incarcerated and tortured after getting suddenly arrested.

Some of you have probably heard about this horrific case of human atrocity when it was reported on the media not long so long ago. While this was surely a shocking news, Kadyrov blatantly and impertinently denied everything in front of the camera as also emphasizing that there is no sexual minority people in Chechnya, and Vladimir Putin, who has been his main political ally, and his Russian government turned a blind eye on Kadyrov’s ongoing purge while also dismissing everything.

Watching how the situation quickly became perilous for sexual minority people in Chechnya, a group of Russian activists embarked on establishing a covert network for saving and extracting sexual minority people from Chechnya, and the documentary mainly revolves around two of these good people: David Isteev and Olga Baranova. Mostly funded by many human rights organizations around the world, they and other Russian activists have helped bunch of sexual minority people escaping Chechnya, and we later see their small clandestine shelter for these people, which is located somewhere in Moscow. Although the rescued people in the shelter are relatively safe now, there is still the constant danger of getting caught and then being sent back to Chechnya, so there is always the sense of dread and anxiety hovering over these people, even when they try to be a bit more joyful than usual.

As watching these sexual minority people on the screen, you may sense something awkward about their faces from time to time, and I assure you that is a natural reaction, because their faces were digitally altered in advance for their safety. Instead of blurring their faces or hiding them in darkness, director/co-producer/co-writer David France chose to this digital modification method for presenting what is genuinely expressed from their faces while not endangering them at all, and, as far as I could see from the final result, this approach mostly works despite occasional awkwardness.

Meanwhile, things become more difficult for Isteev, Baranova, and their other fellow activists with more obstacles for them. At one point, they must rescue the aforementioned young woman as soon as possible, and we accordingly get a series of tense moments as she and other activists carefully sneak away from Grozny and then go to a nearby airport, where they still must be very careful because they may get caught at any moment before finally allowed to get on a plane flying to Moscow.

The documentary also observes how the situation is not so stable for the rescued sexual minority people. In case of one young gay lad, his family was frequently threatened by the local police after his escape, so his family, who bravely chose to stand by him, subsequently moved to Moscow, but they also needed to stay in a safe house because the Chechen government is still looking for him. This young man happened to be in one of those horrible prisons for sexual minority people in Chechnya, and the Chechen government certainly does not want him to testify about its ongoing purge in public.

Not long after leaving Russia along with his family as well as his boyfriend, this young man eventually decides to come forward and tell everything in front of the camera. While well aware of the enormous risk in coming back to Russia, he does what should be done for him and many other sexual minority people in danger, and there is a brief but undeniably powerful moment when his real face and identity are revealed to us as he speaks in front of a group of journalists.

While bitterly recognizing how things will continue to get worse for sexual minority people in not only Chechnya but also Russia, “Welcome to Chechnya”, which received the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Editing when it was shown at Sundance Film Festival early in this year, does not resort to anger and frustration, and neither do those decent and courageous activists shown in the documentary. Justice still seems to be out of reach for them as oppressed more than before, but they do not give up at all, and I can only wish that justice will eventually be served to them and many persecuted sexual minority people out there in not only Chechnya but also Russia.

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