When the embrace of one’s true self becomes a protest, and when protest is treated by the state as tantamount to treason, small acts of humanity can carry the weight of the world. Director David France wades into this awful reality with his newest documentary, “Welcome to Chechnya,” which tracks a group of activists in Russia and Chechnya who operate an LGBTQ+ Underground Railroad of sorts. Somewhat narrow in its focus and light on flourishes, the piece is nonetheless a bracing and informative peek inside a humanitarian terror campaign that is going on its third year.
France’s documentary comes in layers that give the viewer a broad overview of the history of Chechnya and Russia, the LGBTQ+ purges that began in 2017, shocking videos of abuse/torture, and the work activists are doing to protect the targeted victims of this state-sanctioned abuse. The doc introduces David Isteev and Olga Baranova early on, as both work with organizations within Russia that communicate with victims of the Chechnya LGBTQ+ purges, and shuttle them to undisclosed safe houses where they prepare them for emigration elsewhere.
In some cases, these victims are the result of elaborate catfishing operations by the Chechen police and military, and those that survive the beatings and torture must give up names, which leads to more arrests and violent incarcerations. Other victims in David and Olga’s care are ones that have reached out ahead of their potential arrest for fear of their own family killing them due to state intimidation and threats encouraging them to do just that. Once France establishes the base layers of this story, he returns to fatten each up and to give context to each pillar of this story.
And yet, the journey to safety isn’t the end of the struggle for these victims. France does a fantastic job highlighting the emotional anguish that comes with leaving one’s family, friends, and culture in a wholesale abandonment of everything that person has ever known. They are safe, sure, but physical death is just one consequence of being in the LGBTQ+ community in Chechnya: it also portends a full or near-full social perishing as well.
It makes for a daunting watch and is not for the faint of heart. Put bluntly, “Welcome to Chechnya” forces the viewer to witness hate crimes in various clips with a cell phone visual aesthetic that has become a hallmark of 21st-century brutality. Though necessary (it is indeed important that the world sees this), it is a shock to see, for France refuses to pull away or alleviate the viewer of even a fraction of the pain those featured must endure. This is just one layer of the story, and one of the thinnest at that; most of the documentary focuses on the work Olga and David do with the victims of these purges, and the struggles they all endure throughout the process.
The documentary shows this to be complex work, and “Welcome to Chechnya” is most effective when featuring the logistical challenges of this Underground Railroad network. Olga talks about the volunteers and how most, like her, came from professions that didn’t exactly lend themselves to statecraft, human smuggling, and document acquisitions. There’s also the psychological aspect of their work, and the struggle of those in their program to survive not just their physical ordeal, but the emotional aspects of it as well. At one point one of the residents of the safe house attempts suicide, and there’s a mix of fear, desperation, and anger amongst those trying to keep the young man alive.
“Welcome to Chechnya” paints a vivid picture of the struggle to keep these victims safe, yet if it’s thin anywhere it is in the broader geopolitical context of how this is addressed on the world stage. Although there’s one archive interview with Chechnya’s President about halfway through where he flatly denies any kind of a purge in his country, there’s little else in this regard. The documentary never takes the question of what is happening and what’s being done about it to officials from any government, and while not suspicious, it does leave the effort somewhat lopsided in its presentation.
Using a mix of guerrilla filming, professional talking head set-ups, and lo-fi digital captures of spontaneous interviews, “Welcome to Chechnya” assembles a grim but inspiring picture of a human rights travesty happening in real-time. Shocking without being exploitative, sad without veering off into depressing, and inspirational without a hint of the saccharine, David France’s documentary tells a difficult story well. [B+]
“Welcome to Chechnya” arrives on HBO on June 30.