Documentary Review: ‘Welcome To Chechnya’ On HBO

Review by James Lindorf

HBO wanted to close out Pride Month with a bang. To do that, they are premiering the latest film from the acclaimed journalist, and Oscar® nominated documentarian David France. “Welcome to Chechnya” chronicles the efforts of a group of brave activists risking their lives to confront the ongoing anti-LGBTQ campaign in the Russian republic of Chechnya. In March of 2017, accounts of LGBTQ citizens being subjugated to a state-sanctioned campaign of intimidation, torture, brutality, and murder Chechnya began appearing in the news. David France’s devastating film will shine a light on the antigay purges in Ramzan Kadyrov’s Chechnya when it premieres June 30th at 10 pm EST.

“Welcome to Chechnya” may sound friendly, but the pleasantries don’t extend past the title. France used a combination of hidden and handheld cameras to take viewers inside the day-to-day workings of an underground pipeline of activists who help those fleeing from their homes. Cameras had to be hidden to avoid detection in police stations and airports to keep the activists and their wards safe. If caught, it could bring down the entire network and result in the loss of multiple lives. In addition to the footage captured by France and his crew, he also incorporated cellphone and security cam footage of attacks and honor killings. Thankfully he stopped just short of showing real-life snuff films. With their mission far from over, there is the question of how do you protect those involved after the release of the film. That answer came from a surprising and often vilified source, deepfakes.

The cutting-edge face-altering technology was used to disguise the film’s most vulnerable participants. You may notice strange things going on with some of the characters’ faces from time to time, but for most of the film, the tech appears seamless. Late in the movie, there is an astonishing scene where the deepfake technology is removed, and we are shown the real face of one of the victims for the first time. The technology is a perfect fit for this run and gun style of filmmaking. It can all be done in post and doesn’t require the limited crew to extra equipment or the subjects to wear disguises that could draw attention.

“Welcome to Chechnya” is a chilling dose of reality when it comes to how bad things can become for a group when they are othered. Othering leads abusers to view their victims as sub-human, a thing to focus their hate on, something you can treat in any way you see fit. When the behavior is not rebuked but glorified, the consequences can be deadly. Hundreds, if not thousands of Chechen people have been forced to abandon their homes, jobs, and loved ones out of fear. Thankfully people like David Isteev, crisis intervention coordinator for the country’s largest gay-rights group The Russian LGBT Network, and Olga Baranova, director of the Moscow Community Center for LGBTI+ Initiatives, are they to help them find a new home. The hope they and people like Maxim Lapunov, who is fighting a legal battle to regain his rights, provide to Chechnya and the world is the only thing that makes the situation bearable.

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