Intimidation, kidnapping, torture, and systematic extermination. Horrific actions that many relegate as a thing of the past, left behind with monsters like Hitler and Stalin. However, for the LGBTQ+ community in Russia—one of the most oppressively homophobic countries in the world—these remain real and present threats to this day.
David France’s HBO Documentary “Welcome to Chechnya”
“Welcome to Chechnya” is an HBO documentary film by journalist and author David France that puts a spotlight on the systematic persecution of the gay community in the titular Republic of Chechnya. Under its strongman President Ramzan Kadyrov, and with the tacit approval of Russian President Vladimir Putin, LGBTQ+ people are entrapped in police stings, rounded up into concentration camps in inhumane conditions, and tortured, sometimes to the point of death so that they give up the names of other gay people they know. If they survive, they are released back to their families who are encouraged to kill them as a way of “maintaining their honor.”
It is a horrific and backwards system that has received little mainstream attention thus far. David France aims to change this with his documentary that follows a group of activists who form an underground network to shepherd gay refugees out of Chechnya and seek asylum in countries with LGBTQ protections.
Filmed with hidden cameras, GoPros, and cellphones, the audience is taken on an intense and bleak journey through the fear imposed on innocent victims of extremist homophobia.
The majority of the film is composed of firsthand accounts of abductions, torture, and cruelty witnessed by the documentary subjects, as well as the activists trying to help them. The film intersperses deeply unsettling footage of homophobic attacks obtained by the filmmakers throughout its runtime.
The film pulls no punches in showing the awful reality of living in Russia as a gay man. At various points, the audience is shown men beaten by groups of men, humiliated, held down with their hair cut, and even the lead up to a killing.
It is horrifying stuff that nonetheless makes the message of the film even more important. I challenge anyone watching not to be deeply disturbed by what they see.
Groundbreaking CGI Technology Techniques Used in “Welcome to Chechnya”
“Welcome to Chechnya” is not only notable for bringing attention to this issue, but also for the groundbreaking techniques the filmmakers used to tell the stories of these victims. Where traditional documentaries either obscure the faces of speakers in shadows or with digital blurs, “Welcome to Chechnya” tries something completely different. Subjects are given fake names and faces by using digital CGI technology to apply new faces to the footage taken of them.
It is a revolutionary technique in documentary filmmaking that ensures the anonymity and safety of people speaking out while also humanizing them and showing the genuine emotion behind their words. It’s a technique I expect many films to emulate going forward.
However, outside of the technical impact, the film is also one of the most profoundly affecting documentaries I’ve watched in a long time. It expertly cuts between real footage and vivid firsthand accounts that paint a terrifying picture of a regime that should not exist in the modern era. I consider the film deeply important work of activism, and I hope it receives the attention it deserves.
I understand people’s hesitancy in watching “Welcome to Chechnya.” It was not an easy watch, and I often didn’t want to continue watching after seeing some of the footage. However, the film is also an essential call to action for a minority with no rights or protections in one of the most backwards parts of the world. I would implore anyone who cares about these issues to watch it.