Welcome to Chechnya review: One of the most important documentaries of the year
Ivan Radford | On 26, Jun 2020
Director: David France
Cast: David Isteev
Watch Welcome to Chechnya online: BBC iPlayer
Welcome to Chechnya premiered in the UK as part of Sheffield Doc/Fest, which is streaming online until 10th July – see our picks from the festival line-up here
“Could anything have prepared us for what happened in 2017? And what happened afterward? No.” That’s David Isteev, a journalist turned activist at the start of Welcome to Chechnya, a devastating documentary about the Russian Federation republic’s purge of its LGBTQ+ population.
That such a phrase is even possible to write is shocking in itself, and David France’s film captures the raw reality of the persecution underway with an unflinching eye – unflinching, that is, save for one technical flourish that disguises the identity of the people we see on screen. Digitally masking their faces, in a manner not dissimilar to David Fincher’s The Social Network duplicating Armie Hammer, the deep-fake technique prevents anyone ferried away to safety by Isteev and his network of covert helpers from being identified on camera. It’s a mark of how accomplished France’s filmmaking is that this step is both a compassionate, human decision and one that doesn’t distract from the harrowing truth on screen.
The film introduces us to several stories of survivors, from Anya, a 21-year-old threatened by her uncle to have intercourse with him, or he’ll reveal her homosexuality to her father, a high-ranking official. There’s Grisha, who has Russian citizenship to help him find freedom, but is tortured and pursued by the authorities nonetheless, to prevent him telling the media what’s happened – his whole family has to be moved to safe houses in Moscow. Even a well-known singer from the Chechen capital disappears from the public eye with barely anyone batting an eyelid.
That bare-faced denial of what’s going on is horrifying, with Head of the Chechen Republic saying in an interview with HBO’s Real Sports in 2017 that all LGTBQ+ people are “subhuman” and have “made it up”. The unsettling matter-of-fact approach of the state to the subject is countered powerfully with Grisha’s story, as he does make a move to go public – and, in doing so, his digital mask is removed to reveal his true face.
France follows each strand of hushed relocation with the urgency and secrecy of a hesit movie – the suspense is palpable as they meet people in cars, in diners and deploy decoys to avoid being followed. But the very real, shocking stakes are made clear throughout, as the handheld footage is intercut with cellphone and CCTV clips of homophobic assaults. “All our problems are because of people like you,” says one attacker, after pulling someone from a car.
France, who found similar shocking power in the documentary How to Survive a Plague, traces the roots of this hate campaign with all the thorough attention to detail you’d expect from his journalist experience. 151 people have been resettled by the Isteev’s network, we’re told, which only leaves you wondering how many others were unable to find help in time. A gripping, chilling expose of a modern atrocity, and one of the most important documentaries you’ll see this year.
Welcome to Chechnya is available on BBC Four from 10pm on Wednesday 1st July.