Imagine being hunted, abducted in broad daylight and your family being told to kill you or face the consequences. This isn’t some outlandish plot for a Hollywood thriller but the real-life nightmare for many Chechnyans whose only crime is to be gay.
Raided, tortured and taken off the streets by vigilante gangs, gay men were regularly entrapped and threatened with torture unless they gave up the name of gay people they knew. In turn, they too would be abducted in a stealth-like purge, calculated purge designed to restore “traditional values”.
Taking his cue from Vladimir Putin, self-styled hard man, Chechnyan leader Ramzan Kadyrov would later deny any such atrocities had taken place. However, the flame had knowingly been lit. In a once secular country, shame is now open currency for which many families have been convinced can only be assuaged by blood – Welcome to Chechnya.
…is both vital evidence and a warning to the future.
In a harrowing yet vital documentary, director David France’s ‘Welcome to Chechnya’ documents the efforts of a covert network of LGBTQ+ activists who help gay men and women escape the country before they can be persecuted. However, checking their every movement is the constant fear of exposure and capture.
In following the escape attempts of several of the 25 fugitives a month that pass through the shelter, the film uses cutting-edge digital effects their appearance. Even with the different features convincingly face-mapped onto their bodies, the emotions still pour out. Having already being captured and interrogated “Grisha” is hoping his boyfriend “Bogdan” his family and friends behind to join him in a new life in another country. Anya desperately needs to escape her uncle who threatens to reveal her as a lesbian to her high-ranking general of a father, who would kill her without hesitation. Both are high-value assets for a regime that doesn’t what their purge exposed to the outside world.
With multiple teams, some to distract, others to extract, everyone is running the gauntlet towards freedom. As each fugitive is bundled into cars, has their hair cut or coloured, they smash their past along with their phones for fear of capture.
In a raising of the stakes, the Chechnyan authorities later realise that “Grisha” could reveal the true nature and extent of their punishment camps. As such, now his whole family must be evacuated when they threatened with death unless they give him up. In these tense moments, lives, careers and all semblances of wealth must be discarded, and coming out to your bewildered family is a small step when everyone’s lives are on the line.
Now is not the time to look away.
Like the interspersed, recovered home videos that show the traumatising effects of the gay purge, ‘Welcome to Chechnya’ is both vital evidence and a warning to the future. In a documentary where the activists are taking even greater risks than the people they save, the implicit message is the same. If it can happen in the once tranquil Chechnya, then it can happen in Russia and possibly everywhere.
Like radioactive waste, prejudice is an invisibly toxic substance and liable to kill you when you’ve forgotten about it. ‘Welcome to Chechnya’ is a timely reminder, that will burn its way into your memory in ways you won’t easily forget.