Review | ‘Welcome to Chechnya’

HBO Doc Follows Activists Who Smuggle LGBTQ+ Individuals Out of Russia

Welcome to Chechnya | Credit: Courtesy

In 2017, the Chechen Republic targeted all gay people and lesbians in a country-wide “gay hunt.” Its tactics and its atrocities are noted with precision in the poignant documentary, Welcome to Chechnya.

The film follows a network of activists who smuggle LGBTQ+ individuals out of Russia, focusing on two rescuers and two rescuees as they navigate their way to safety. In verité style, the documentary exposes a human rights tragedy that, for one reason or another, has been purged from headlines. 

We first meet crisis coordinator David Isteev responding to a frantic phone call with a cool, comforting ease. The static voice on the other end painfully details her family’s abuse (she’s lesbian) as she begs, pleads, and cries for help. Like so many others, Isteev’s network of safe houses and foreign connections is her only chance at escape. Those fleeing Russia are spirited to a nearby country — identified as “somewhere in Canada” or “somewhere in Europe” for security reasons. And the film does all it can to keep its subjects safe. 

Director David France uses “deep fake” technology to overlap their faces with that of a volunteer, allowing France to not only follow his subjects from safe house to safe house, but to capture their daily routines. In the tradition of guerrilla filmmaking, France zeroes in on hang-out scenes, where the subjects chat, joke, and make love while hiding from authorities. There are nail-biting moments, too — checkpoints, blown covers, savage archival footage — but France doesn’t show bias toward these episodes. Rather, he treats the banal and the pivotal equally to speak to his greater point: The queer people of Chechnya live in fear day and night, at home or in public. 

France blends this terrifying message with glimmers of hope and resistance; a magnificent light shining through a thick Russian fog.

Welcome to Chechnya is now streaming on HBO Max.


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