There’s a clip, in David France’s Welcome to Chechnya, of a 2017 interview with Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov. He is confronted over the allegation that LGBT citizens have been getting abducted and tortured by his regime. “This is nonsense,” he says. “We don’t have such people here. We don’t have any gays.” If there are any, he continues, they ought to be eradicated—sent to Canada, for the sake of purifying the country. He denies the torture outright, in other words; so does the Kremlin. Few people can publicly attest to this, because anyone who speaks out against Kadyrov becomes an automatic target of the Chechen government.
This fear is not abstract. The people chronicled in France’s film have pictures on their phones documenting the torture they suffered, some of which we see. They have grim stories: of being captured by police, of getting questioned over their phone contacts, of being driven to those contacts’ homes and forced to aid the police in their respective capture. And then there’s the evidence we see for ourselves: cell phone footage of people being beaten and harassed.
France’s movie, which premieres on HBO Tuesday, is largely focused on a Moscow-based group of activists attempting to help these survivors flee the country. These people are not professional movers: they are former journalists and photographers, artists, academics—none of whom had experience with helping people covertly escape oppressive regimes, until they did. Their operation, run from a discreet location that becomes a haven for escapees-in-wait, receives about 25 new refugees a month. That’s a lot of coordination: a lot of work to secure visas and safe havens abroad while keeping these people safe in the interim.
Sometimes that’s a tall order. One young man is fleeing because while he is not a citizen of Chechnya, he has spent time detained in one of its prisons for being gay—and upon his release back to Russia, he became a threat to a regime that would rather the world buy into its denialism. His entire family has to be moved. Another of these young people tries to slit their wrists. Immediately, as they’re being slapped awake and their arm bandaged, we hear a reprimand: “Don’t fucking create problems for us.” And: “There are other people here besides you.”
France’s movie is very much an on-the-ground account of these happenings. Its access is unprecedented, made possible only by anonymizing the faces of these exiles using deepfake technology that makes them appear just this side of normal. This visual strategy has a curious effect: you look at people without really being able to see them. You’re forced to reckon with the nature of identity—how it can cost someone their life.
Welcome to Chechnya is largely procedural, with long scenes detailing the steps it takes to covertly travel from one territory to another, toward safety or something like it. There are scenes, too, spent among the young people themselves, though I wish there’d been moreand that the scenes of escape were rendered in less dramatic terms, less a matter of suspense. Certain hyped-up scenes, with their insistent music and “TV expose” vibe, fall flat precisely because they add an energy that this situation, an outright tragedy, shouldn’t need in order to make its point.
These scenes don’t tell us nearly as much as the scenes in which we hear people speak about their experiences firsthand—as one young man does, detailing his torture to his boyfriend, with whom he is joyfully able to reunite. With little emotion, the young man explains his scars as his boyfriend touches those spots and says nothing. It isn’t as dramatic as a pulse-pounding scene at the airport, waiting for passport approvals and hoping everyone’s cover story works out. But it’s much more meaningful.