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‘Welcome to Chechnya’ is a devastating but insightful look into LGBTQ+ persecution in Russia

‘Welcome to Chechnya’ is a devastating but insightful look into LGBTQ+ persecution in Russia

‘Welcome to Chechnya’ is a devastating but insightful look into LGBTQ+ persecution in Russia
July 03
15:06 2020

Content warning: violence against the LGBTQ+ community

“The door closes and you disappear, as if you were never in Russia.”

This statement, said by one of the interview subjects in HBO’s “Welcome to Chechnya,” echoes the reality of life in the Russian republic as an LGBTQ+ person — someone finds out about your sexual orientation, and you are discretely disposed of by your family or the government. Chechnya’s anti-gay campaign, quietly spearheaded by Vladamir Putin’s puppet and the head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov, took off in 2017 and has resulted in numerous disappearances of LGBTQ+ persons. They are tortured and killed at the hands of the government, if not already killed by their family. This documentary by David France follows David Isteev and Olga Baranova of The Russian LGBT Network as they risk their lives to get people out of the country and to asylum. 

It’s a brutal watch. There’s literally “Game of Thrones” Harrenhal torture described by one of the survivors. There are also multiple graphic videos intercepted by LGBTQ+ activists and played throughout the documentary. I’d say it’s enough to be deterring if this could potentially be triggering for you, so watch at your own risk. Nevertheless, it’s an eye-opening watch that illuminates how abhorrently Russians and the Russian government are treating the community, especially in Chechnya.

There’s an eerie sense of impending doom surrounding the documentary, implying that despite how horrible things are for LGBTQ+ people now, there’s a lingering possibility it’ll get far worse. Take this phrase, for example, said by Kadyrov when asked about LGBTQ+ persecution in an interview. His rhetoric is frighteningly similar to that of Nazi Germany leaders.

“We want to purify our blood,” Kadyrov said. “Get them out of here.”

I was also quite surprised by how much the filmmakers were actually able to capture. I would be interested in knowing exactly how they went about getting this footage, because a good portion of it must have been done secretly — there’s footage captured at passport control at Russian airports, which is not really allowed anywhere, and scenes from being pulled over by the police as well as footage from inside a Moscow police station. It’s fantastic footage that really adds to the alarm of the situation, as you’re actually able to see the pivotal make-or-break moments of the escape. You hold your breath with the refugees, hoping their forged passports will work.

But one thing that really bothered me was the documentary’s method of disguising the interview subjects. Aside from Isteev and Baranova (as well as a victim whose identity is eventually revealed), the names, faces and voices of the refugees fleeing for their life have been altered for obvious reasons. Instead of just pixelating their faces, though, the doc employed some sort of technology that gave everyone a different face. I get that being able to see a face react with emotion to the things they see and hear and say is more impactful that watching a blurry circle on a body, but it honestly just felt like I was looking at video game characters. What was intended to ground the story ended up just taking me out of it.

Additionally, I was surprised that Isteev and Baranova were explicitly identified. If the Russian government was willing to threaten family members just for being related to an LGBTQ+ person, I can only imagine what they would do to the people who are breaking the law to smuggle those people out of the country. A little more backstory about The Russian LGBT Network and Isteev and Baranova’s individual experiences working against the government could have offered more insight into this situation.

Those are fairly minor in the grand scheme of things, though, and “Welcome to Chechnya” is a harrowing look at the persecution of the LGBTQ+ community that should inspire action from individuals and governments everywhere. While the documentary focuses specifically on happenings in Chechnya, Isteev makes it clear that incidents in this isolated region can easily bleed into the lives of those outside it.

“If LGBT people are regarded as subhuman,” Isteev said. “If you can do anything to them, it means that tomorrow anyone can find themselves in the shoes of gay Chechnyans.”

Visit the documentary’s website for more information and ways to take action.

Final rating: 4.5/5

Featured image: Courtesy HBO

David Isteev, Crisis Response Manager

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Haley Arnold

Haley Arnold

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