Welcome to Chechnya

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A deeply ironic title, Welcome to Chechnya is a documentary about the treatment of homosexuals in the Chechen Republic, a largely Islamic part of the world which fought for its independence against Russia in two wars in the 1990s and is now embroiled in a culture war over LGBT rights.

Chechnya is a country where anal sex is punishable by a caning for a first or second offence and the death penalty for a third. It’s run by self-styled strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, a Putin appointee who wants his people to be fit, devout and ready for combat, he says. Like Putin he walks about as if he has two sets of balls.

In an interview with Kadyrov, the sniggering leader is asked about the torture of gay men in his country. At first he insists there are no gay men in Chechnya, and if there are, he tells the interviewer jokily, please take them to Canada (destination of many of Chechnya’s escaped persecuted homosexuals). Gay men are devils, he continues, warming to his subject, they are filth, they sell themselves. All this while Kadyrov plays with his beard and makes off-mike remarks to a fawning entourage. A less statesmanlike performance is hard to imagine.

David France has a history of making films about LGBT activists – you might have seen his excellent 2012 documentary How to Survive a Plague, about the early years of Aids – and much of this largely depressing film focuses on David Isteev and Olga Baranova, a pair of co-ordinators at a helpline for imperilled gay men and women who we first meet fielding a phone call from a girl who is being threatened by her uncle. The uncle has just discovered his neice is gay and now wants her to sleep with him, or else he’ll tell her father what he knows.

Ramzan Kadyrov
Ramzan Kadyrov makes his claim

From some of the 25 or so people a month that Baranova and Isteev are processing, we get a series of grim stories and, this being the era of the ubiquitous smartphone, some unsettling footage. Like the lesbian being dragged out of a car, and a man running to fetch a big brick so he can lob it at her prone form. What happens to her we don’t find out – the camera cuts discreetly away.

Earlier, there’s been footage of some thugs discovering two guys doing something sexual in a steamed-up car. “We’re going to kill you,” they shout in a frenzy as the screen again goes black. At a hospital a bleach-blond young man with bloody wrists and discarded razor blades on the floor in front of him is out cold, drunk to the point of unconsciousness to make his suicide attempt (botched) easier.

And we meet Grisha, who, in underground railroad style, is being evacuated out of Chechnya by Isteev and Baranova’s organisation, and his whole family – mother, sister etc – too, because it’s too dangerous for them to stay there. To a large extent it’s Grisha who forms the spine of this film, especially once he decides to go on the attack by filing a complaint against the Russian authorities in an attempt to force them to declare themselves as being officially homophobic.

Don’t be gay in Chechnya, or don’t get caught, is the film’s message. Or you might end up like the in-all-likelihood-gay pop singer Zelim Bakaev, who disappeared while attending a wedding and is now presumed dead. And if it can happen to a famous person, it can happen to anyone.

Some of the stories related in this film are truly horrific – like the torture-by-rats scenario which sounds like the sort of atrocity perpetrated by sadistic Japanese camp commandants in the Second World War. And yet this is going on in the European end of Russia. Grim viewing, even if regular news reports about the Chechen situation rob France’s documentary of some of its shock value.

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

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