Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. HBO premieres it on Tuesday, June 30.
Over the course of his filmmaking career, David France has made urgent political documentaries about LGBTQ rights, first with the AIDS pandemic and the founders of ACT UP (the Oscar-nominated “How to Survive a Plague”), then the first transgender rights activists (“The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson”). His third film, “Welcome to Chechnya,” completes what he dubs in a director’s statement his “outsider activism” trilogy. Using guerrilla filmmaking tactics to shoot inside the heavily policed region, “Welcome to Chechnya” uncovers the horrific state-sanctioned detainment, torture, and execution of LGBTQ Chechens, humanizing the victims while protecting their identities with groundbreaking VFX technology. It’s France’s bravest film yet, and a noble conclusion to his trilogy.
The film’s central figures are the activists who risk their own lives in order to help evacuate at-risk people from Chechnya. The stakes are beyond high as the film opens with David Isteev, head of Russia’s largest gay rights group The Russian LGBT Network, responding to a troubling phone call. A 21-year-old lesbian says her uncle is threatening to out her to her family if she doesn’t have sex with him. Her father is a high-ranking official in the Chechen government, and Anya is certain he will hurt — maybe even kill — her should he find out. These are the options for lesbians in Chechnya: Rape or death.
The woman is given a pseudonym, “Anya,” as are all the subjects who have fled their homeland due to the government’s methodical torture of LGBTQ people. Their faces are also disguised using a face-swapping effect, similar to the de-aging technology used in “The Irishman,” except with entirely different features. This is the first time a documentary has used this particular VFX technique, known as a “digital face double.” The effect is striking; it’s far easier to connect and empathize with a subject whose facial expressions you can see. A shadowy figure in the dark would hardly have done justice to these brave people sharing their painful stories.
As the film explains, the systemic cleansing of gays and lesbians began by a cruel twist of fate, when authorities discovered explicit photos of men on one man’s cell phone during a drug raid. They detained and tortured him, forcing him to reveal names of other gay men, which eventually snowballed into the humanitarian crisis of today. When asked directly about the crisis in an interview with Bryant Gumbel, Chechnya’s leader, a burly bodybuilder and Vladimir Putin shill named Ramzan Kadyrov, denies the existence of gay Chechens at all. To make matters worse, the problem is only intensifying. Having witnessed the Kremlin’s complete indifference to the Chechen crisis, the neighboring regions of Dagestan and North Ossetia have begun their own gay-cleansing campaigns.
“Welcome to Chechnya” balances its more journalistic reporting with equally compelling human stories. Alongside David Isteev is Olga Baranova, who works tirelessly running her organization’s Moscow safe house for escaped Chechens. With an asymmetrical haircut and funky glasses, she looks like someone you’d meet at any Central European lesbian bar. Extremely dedicated and no-nonsense, she has one of the film’s most eloquent lines. “Who are they now?,” Olga asks of the people in her care. “They are all refugees now.” By the film’s conclusion, we learn that Olga, along with her young son, has had to leave Russia because of her activism.
Emerging as the film’s emotional anchor is “Grisha,” a 30-year-old Russian man who was detained and tortured while working in Chechnya. Once officials learned he was not an ethnic Chechen , and therefore could more safely speak out publicly, he became an even greater target. His boyfriend, mother, sister, niece and nephew all had to go into hiding. His tearful reunion with his boyfriend after a year apart is a rare moment of joy in the otherwise bleak events. Even more arresting is a scene showing Grisha and his family, including two sweetly innocent children and an elderly woman, anxiously boarding a plane to an unidentified European country.
Such emotionally fraught scenes are far more effective than the film’s graphic depictions of violence, which cross lines at times. France intersperses grainy found footage of attacks filmed inside Chechnya throughout the film, each more gruesome than the last. Though these images may be vital to conveying the full gravity of the situation, showing what basically amounts to snuff films without a content advisory warning feels a bit irresponsible. Even more questionable is an extended shot of one man’s bloody slit wrist after an attempted suicide, which feels wildly gratuitous if not a touch exploitative.
The face doubling technique reaches its zenith during a 2017 press conference. As “Grisha,” having finally decided to speak out publicly, reveals his true identity to be Maxim Lapunov, his real face slowly comes into focus. It’s an emotional gut-punch and a technical wonder all at once, and it pulls the entire film into focus. In that one moment, the painstaking care with which France has protected his subjects and the unimaginable bravery of these men and women is suddenly crystal clear. “Welcome to Chechnya” is a vital and urgent portrait of an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, and the world needs to hear about it.
“Welcome to Chechnya” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 26. The film will debut on HBO in June 2020.