‘Welcome to Chechnya’ Film Review: LGBT Refugees Flee Violence in Gripping Documentary

Sundance 2020: The director of “How to Survive a Plague” returns with another gut-punch examination of a life-or-death crisis

Welcome to Chechnya

Advocacy meets suspense in “Welcome to Chechnya,” a chilling examination of both the brutality that the Chechen LGBT community is forced to face on a daily basis and the difficulty of leaving the country for peace and safety.

It’s very much of a piece with the earlier films from journalist-turned-filmmaker David France: His stirring, Oscar-nominated “How to Survive a Plague” showed how gay men and their allies in 1980s New York City stepped up to face the HIV/AIDS crisis in the face of government indifference, while “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson” used the ongoing investigation into the death of a legendary trans activist to examine transphobia in the NYPD and other government institutions.

With “Chechnya,” France goes behind enemy lines in an ongoing crisis: the systematic beatings, torture and “honor killings” of LGBT people under the Putin-backed regime of strongman dictator Ramzan Kadyrov. The government claims that there are no queer people in the country, but as we learn from first-hand testimony from the film’s courageous subjects — and from terrifying cellphone footage of violent acts — they have been forced into silence in a country where families are encouraged to shun, report and even kill their own “deviant” family members.

France and his crew follow activists David Isteev and Olga Baranova, who run clandestine support networks for the Russian LGBT community. They help people get to a secret shelter, from which they can shuttle clients over the border. (Because Russia tacitly backs Chechnya’s policies in this regard, refugees can’t just leave Chechnya; they need to get out of Russia altogether.)

We get a glimpse at various escapees, from “Grisha,” who moved to Chechnya as an adult and now longs to escape after being tortured by the authorities, to “Anya,” the daughter of a Chechen official whose uncle is trying to blackmail her into having sex with him in exchange for his silence about her orientation. The names of the refugees have been changed not only for their safety, but also for their families, who are subject to violence and harassment even if their relatives leave the country, in order to ensure the ongoing silence from LGBT victims of the regime.

“Welcome to Chechnya” will no doubt prompt a great deal of discussion for the way in which it keeps its subjects anonymous: France uses digital technology, not unlike the CG that made the cast of “The Irishman” look younger, to obscure the subjects of his documentary. It’s a mostly invisible bit of trickery; two-thirds of the way through the film, when one of the refugees goes public at a press conference and reveals to the world the truth about LGBT oppression in Chechnya, the digital cover dissolves and we see the person’s real face for the first time.

What’s happening in Chechnya is a brutal enough story to stand on its own, but France engages the audience by giving us personal insight into Grisha and Anya and other escapees, as well as using hidden cameras to document border crossings, airplane boardings and other tense moments where the audience collectively holds its breath to see if the escapees will be able to get through the next hurdle. Editor (and co-writer) Tyler H. Walk gives these moments real white-knuckle tension that, ultimately, further builds audience identification and empathy.

This is frequently a hard movie to watch, from the testimonies about torture and repression to what would appear to be footage of a woman being murdered by family members because of her sexual orientation, but France balances the horror of this international scandal with an intimately human element, from Grisha’s boyfriend and family members who travel together for their collective safety to Baranova herself having to contemplate leaving when her advocacy becomes known to the authorities.

You may not be surprised to learn that the United States has not welcomed a single LGBT Chechen refugee; in fact, apart from one statement from then-US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley in 2017, the current administration has remained mum on the issue. In the face of this silence from so many countries, “Welcome to Chechnya” (which airs in HBO in June) has the potential to rally global humanitarian concern for this tragedy.