This brutal documentary exposes Chechnya’s queer genocide
Its director David France is exposing the biggest organised culling of LGBT+ people since the days of 1940s fascism.
CW: This article includes descriptions of acts of physical violence against members of the LGBT+ community
In February 2017, authorities in Chechnya -- a republic of Russia located in the North Caucasus -- arrested a man they suspected to be under the influence of a controlled substance. As is procedure, they searched his phone. According to a report from the Human Rights Watch, they found “explicit material” (most likely shared nude photos and gay pornography), and the contact details of dozens of gay men. This triggered the most vicious example of a direct, state-sanctioned anti-gay genocide since the Second World War -- one that is ongoing, despite being denied by both Vladimir Putin and the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. Hundreds of Chechen LGBT+ identifying individuals have been detained and tortured by the authorities; many have been subsequently murdered by their families in state-advocated “honour” killings.
David France’s Sundance premiering Welcome to Chechnya, which just played at the 70th Berlinale and won the prestigious Panorama Dokumente award, aims to expose this unprecedented humanitarian crisis. David is a veteran investigative journalist who once edited Newsweek, and has bylines in the likes of The New York Times, The New Yorker and GQ. While his other films are no less urgent in interrogating queer oppression (you might have seen his searing ACT UP documentary How to Survive a Plague), Welcome to Chechnya is the first to examine an atrocity unfolding today.
“I had heard about the crimes that were being carried out there in early 2017,” David says. “There were headlines around the globe; we all knew that this had been discovered, that there was a top down, government-led campaign to eradicate gay people from the Chechen bloodline. I didn’t know that it was ongoing... until several months later, there was an article written by the journalist Masha Gessen in The New Yorker, about the response of the LGBT+ community in Russia in the absence of any political response internationally.” It’s this 'underground railroad' in operation -- a vast global network of safe houses and ad-hoc groups which connects Russia to the West -- that Welcome to Chechnya focuses on.
“They were working in incredibly perilous circumstances to respond to this horror,” David adds. “So I called Masha up and asked her if she would make an introduction to the people doing this work. She did, and I think in three days -- maybe four -- I was there shooting. She opened the door for me, and vouched for me, so she made it possible for me to begin my work.” David would have to be covert.
“I was there on a tourist visa. I had developed a cover story to describe why I was continually returning to Russia, and it had to do with a romance I had developed. I had a girlfriend there -- my first since college,” he says, with a wink. (David, openly gay, has been reporting on LGBT+ issues since the AIDS crisis.) “She was great. She helped establish my bonafides. She had a transgender son, who was just transitioning. My previous film [The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson] was about the transgender community, so we were able to talk about that a lot, and she was just a fantastic and generous host for me.”
Welcome to Chechnya has faced a degree of criticism for its use of grotesque footage depicting real-life violence against queer Chechens. One of these clips, black-and-white CCTV footage, shows an “honour killing” in action. A woman’s head is crushed with a rock, the film cutting milliseconds before the fatal blow is delivered. Thirty seconds of emotionless efficiency; one less queer for Kadyrov to deny. “As I say in the film, they were intercepted by the activists,” David says of how the clips were sourced. “We were working with the activists, so we were able to see them once they were able to uncover them. They constitute visual evidence of the horror of the crimes being committed.”
Perhaps more harrowing than the actual footage is its intended purpose. “The footage was shot by the people committing those crimes. They were ‘deliverables’ in a way. Part of the record that was being reported up to their superiors, to prove that they were doing what they were under orders to do.” Another such clip shows the brutal rape of a gay man at the hands of Chechen police, filmed on a smartphone. “I did not find any footage of the torture campaigns inside the prison system in Chechnya -- many people whose stories I tell in the film experienced that torture,” David continues. “They all tell the story of being filmed while this was happening. We have an idea of where it is; if we were a government force we might be able to petition for it in some way, but so far we haven’t seen it.”
With these brutal atrocities ongoing, there’s an obvious, lingering question: Political secrecy aside, why have the Chechen genocides dropped from the news cycle? “Well, you know, I’m a veteran print journalist,” David says. “These days, the news cycle is very shallow. In the US we report excessively on the tweeting habits of our president. These shallow news stories have squeezed out any space for in-depth reporting; certainly investigative reporting has lost ground.” And it’s not as if Chechnya is a vacuum of anti-queerness -- who knows how many other stories are slipping away globally? “This one sort of just vanished. Yet the campaign itself hasn’t gone away. And it goes on unchecked. I was horrified to realise that no one was covering this.”
It’s with the aim of international awareness that Welcome to Chechnya was conceived. David, ever the activist, hopes that his film can act as a catalyst to spur a global political response. “At the very least,” he says, “to make the people who watch the film, or know about the film, complicit in some way. To implicate them in some way. To say that if we start raising these questions, and raising our voices about what’s happening, we can force our governments to pay more attention. We can force our governments to make at least a minimum statement in opposition of what’s happening there.”
Yet, with the platform that Welcome to Chechnya has increasingly achieved -- its debut and subsequent acclaim at Sundance, an audience award at the Berlinale, and a release via HBO in June -- a large-scale response from Kadyrov would seem imminent. “We haven’t witnessed any backlash against them directly as a result of the film, and the work that we’ve accomplished together,” David says, “but we’re expecting it, and have made provisions for responding to whatever sort of backlash that comes.” The film presents a difficult ethical conundrum. As David is aware, lives will almost certainly be at stake, the threat only broadening as the film reaches a wider audience. But queer activism has existed to defy risk in the pursuit of overcoming mass oppression, and it’s naive to assume, without rapid global attention, that this will remain localised.
“This is the first time since Hitler that a government has commenced a campaign to round up all LGBT+ people for execution,” David says. “It’s tempting to feel comfortable and complacent, and to feel that the gains made across the course of my lifetime, anyway, are solid gains. And it turns out they’re not. This is a call for vigilance; and a call to arms to the community, to be prepared for what might be coming next. We must exercise our powers today to stop what’s happening now.”
'Welcome to Chechnya' will be released in June 2020. For information on how to help those dealing with violence and oppression with Chechnya, visit Russia's LGBT Network.