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Welcome to Chechnya – first look review

David France’s vital documentary interrogates the ongoing queer genocide in the Russian republic.

When it comes to the recent on-screen documentation of queer politics and activism, no one has established their credentials better than David France, the former editor of Newsweek who segued into filmmaking after decades of work as an investigative journalist. His debut feature How to Survive a Plague, a chronology of archive footage, is the most extensive and easily accessible chronicle of New York City’s AIDS crisis. With Welcome to Chechnya, France shifts his measured yet furious focus to the ongoing queer genocide in Chechnya.

While there is some peripheral focus on the sociopolitical context of anti-queerness in Chechnya, the majority of the film focuses on a group of Chechan LGBT+ activists who work tirelessly to funnel queer Chechans out of the country – to anywhere, essentially, that will offer refuge on a humanitarian visa. They house the refugees in a safehouse, where they typically stay for two weeks prior to escape. It’s within these walls that the group establishes a tight-knit, familial bond. Most have already been subjected to torture at the hands of the Chechan police.

France doesn’t shy away from depicting both the results of said torture and horrendous violence in action. One refugee, Grisha, was interred and tortured for 10 days. “They put a rat on someone’s back under a pan,” he recalls, “heated it, and the rat tried to claw its way out of his back.”

The film is further broken up by footage “intercepted” by queer activists. One sequence shows, via CCTV, a familial “honour” killing; it cuts away just as the final blow is struck. It is to France’s credit that these atrocities are neither watered down nor redacted because, tough though they are to watch, they are essential. The victims are not granted the benefit of being allowed to turn away, and so nor should we.

The subjects of Welcome to Chechnya, as highlighted at the beginning of the film, are digitally disguised for theirs and their families’ safety. The effect is somewhat distracting and slightly crude, something akin to an Instagram face-swap filter, and voices occasionally fall out of sync with digitised mouths – although perhaps even an alternative means of disguise would dilute the film’s message. Maintaining a humanist approach and putting a face to the victims is vital.

Some of the film’s most effective sequences are those which depict the process of escape. Shot entirely on hidden body cams, scenes of the activists passing through border checkpoints are thrilling and frenetic, and more pertinently they remind us of the stakes at hand. The work these activists do is nothing short of heroic, but tragically they are not always successful: many refugees are captured and forcibly returned to their families. This is effectively a death sentence, as the Chechan authorities then encourage families to carry out “honour” killings.

Towards the end of France’s film, Grisha, his identity now revealed, denounces the Chechan government in a public press conference. “If we keep ignoring it,” he argues, “what will keep this from happening everywhere?” Welcome to Chechnya not only provides a stark reminder of the everyday reality of anti-queer oppression outside of our ‘progressive’ Western bubble, but also of the precarious nature of global LGBT+ rights.

Published 24 Feb 2020

Tags: Berlin Film Festival David France LGBT+ Queer Cinema Welcome to Chechnya

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