HBO’s ‘Welcome to Chechnya’ is as important as it is agonizing: Review


Image: HBO

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In Welcome to Chechnya, the third film from Academy Award nominee David France, viewers are asked to relinquish the comforts of abstraction. There’s no time for sweeping shots of foreign countrysides, or graphics placing the small Russian republic on a world map. Instead, it is immediately apparent that this is a very real, very dangerous place — one that viewers, no matter how ill-prepared in their understanding of its tumultuous history, must reckon with.

This is a very real, very dangerous place — one viewers, no matter how ill-prepared, must reckon with immediately.

The guerilla-style documentary begins with a man on the phone. David Isteev, the crisis response coordinator for the Russian LGBT Network, is speaking with a young woman using the alias “Anya.” Anya’s uncle has discovered his niece is a lesbian. If Anya does not agree to have sex with her uncle, she says, then he will tell her father. Isteev hangs up, promising Anya, “We are coming.” 

Of course, they have to be. As Isteev explains, if Anya is not transported out of Russia as soon as possible, her murder at the hands of her relatives is almost certain. That’s the kind of “justice” Chechnya’s anti-LGBTQ purges — instances of extrajudicial mass violence first reported in 2017 — demands.

Steeped in Russia’s long history of homophobic and transphobic violence, Chechnya’s anti-gay genocide is thought to have claimed hundreds of lives in the past three years. Widespread allegations of kidnapping, forced imprisonment, torture, rape, and murder have inspired no action from leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who has vehemently denied their existence — simply stating, “We don’t have those kinds of people here.”

Over the next hour and 47 minutes, Welcome to Chechnya approaches this insidious sentiment from all sides, chronicling the work of Isteev and activists like him as well as profiling the LGBTQ Chechens they are helping to escape. 

Using footage captured by the documentary team as well as clips smuggled out of Russia by human rights activists, France’s work paints a vivid, barbaric portrait of atrocity from inside enemy lines. Identity-concealing technology allows victims to share their horrifying experiences first hand, while images of smashed cell phones and vans piled high with personal belongings tell the story of these refugees fleeing to anywhere that will accept them.

France demonstrates immense restraint in his storytelling, forgoing editorializing to present the facts plainly and starkly. What is captured here needs little outside opinion or framing — the cruelty and pain speak for themselves — and when such commentary is required, it is provided by the people living it. That this violence has already begun to spread to other regions of Russia, that many democratic countries, including the United States, are not taking it seriously, and that the fates of dozens of missing LGBTQ Chechens are unlikely to ever be known, are facts the documentary’s subjects know all too well. They discuss it frankly and eloquently.

Welcome to Chechnya is a blisteringly painful watch, one that imparts new meaning on the practice of bearing witness. This is the kind of film destined to be on “essential” documentary lists for decades to come, the kind we will look back on as critical documentation of a historic wrongdoing.

Welcome to Chechnya airs June 30 at 7 p.m. ET on HBO

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