Welcome to Chechnya
It’s perhaps a little rote and cursory to describe a documentary as urgent or timely but this film presents recent history that needs telling. More to the point, the murder, imprisonment, torture and wider oppression of LGBTQ+ people in Chechnya isn’t even the past. It’s the horror of the present. David France, who has already developed an astonishing campaigning oeuvre, fashions a propulsive narrative that follows Russian activists as they relocate victims away from hostile Chechen territory. He makes stunning use of face-altering techniques to mask sufferers’ identities, a technical ruse upended in the bravura climactic scene.
We’re shown how both active negligence and sustained malevolence function at different levels of Russian government. Chechen leader and boorish oaf-boy (or “strong-man”, as reiterated here) Ramzan Kadyrov denies the existence in his homeland of any gay person, any fledgling sign of queer difference. This is a performative statement made for television, shrouded in coy indifference and articulated through sinister policy measures. Vladimir Putin sits above it all, sufficiently distanced and indisputably implicated. His spectral presence haunts this work, as his unmitigated and amoral authority strangles the expectation of a uniform happy ending.
There are several case studies, with names necessarily changed, filmed using discreetly hidden cameras. “Anya” is a 21-year-old lesbian. Her uncle blackmails her to have sex with him. Otherwise, he will reveal her sexuality and in doing so endanger her life. One breathtaking sequence captures her graphically distorted facial expression, still able to evoke anxiety and relief as she passes fretfully through airport security. The story focus shifts towards “Grisha”, a 30-year-old gay man whose complicated ethnic identity encourages him to speak out against institutional techniques of abuse and control. His account prompts the most piteous moments: he’s separated from and finally reunited with his loved ones.
Jolting insertions of grainy snuff footage, which contain abject violence, will divide viewers. In this instance and with this treatment, their inclusion is probably justified. Evgueni and Sacha Galperine’s insistent score is less of a requisite, undercutting the visual tension supplied by Tyler H. Walk’s efficient editing and Askold Kurov’s alert cinematography. France has given us a vital document that provokes an essentially moral response. State-sponsored detention centres in modern Europe cannot be tolerated. LGBTQ+ people are dying now. It will be our ruin.
Welcome to Chechnya does not have a UK release date yet.
Read more reviews from our Berlin Film Festival 2020 coverage here.
For further information about the event visit the Berlin Film Festival website here.