Welcome to Chechnya (2020)

Welcome to Chechnya
Director: David France
Writer: David France, Tyler H. Walk
Part of: Transition Film Festival
Seen on: 13.6.2021

Content Note: (critical treatment of) homomisia, including explicit homomisic violence, torture and rape; attempted suicide

Starting in 2017, Chechnya saw a sudden and widespread outbreak of homomisic violence that was denied by officials. The Russian LGBT+ Network, especially David Isteev and Olga Baranova, started helping queer people escape Chechnya and Russia altogether. But as long as nobody came forward, no officials seemed willing to investigate the situation, or even acknowledge that anything was going on.

Welcome to Chechnya is an important documentary, but it is definitely not an easy watch. Still, it should be seen.

The film poster showing Maxim Lapunov with his fake face in black and white, behind him a red background with faces from several other people in the documentary.

The film is on a very sensitive topic with people who are in a rather dangerous situation. Instead of using the usual options to protect their identities, France opted to digitally alter their faces so they look like other people. While the technology is really good, it isn’t 100% perfect (yet). Nevertheless, it allows the film to show the emotional impact the situation has on them – and that is definitely important. More important than the technological weaknesses.

The film makes sure that we know that things in Chechnya aren’t just about your “usual” homomisia. That is bad enough, no question, but we are really talking about people being beaten, killed, raped, tortured and disappeared for their sexual orientation (and probably also gender identity, though the film doesn’t mention that explicitly). We hear of a young girl whose uncle is threatening to out her if she doesn’t sleep with him. We see videos of beatings and rapes that were recorded by the perpetrators who seem proud of what they do. We hear Ramzan Kadyrov scoff at the question whether there are homomisic attacks because there are no queer people in Chechnya – making it obvious what the goal is here.

Maxim Lapunov (in his fake face) and his boyfriend on a plane. Both are looking tired and worried.

It’s harrowing to watch, especially as a queer person, Thinking about how little it takes to activate the homomisia smoldering just under the surface to become outright violence committed by both official institutions and just random people is scary as fuck. I am sure that it wouldn’t take much in Austria either to end up there (and as we’re constantly moving to the right, good luck to us, I guess).

But the film isn’t all darkness. The activism of Baranova and Isteev doesn’t come without a price for them, but it works, and their commitment is wonderful to watch, as are their successes. As inspiring as this is, as well as Maxim Lapunov’s decision to come forward in the end, the frustrating truth is that the situation in Chechnya is still a high risk, and the people in charge are not interested to do anything about it. So we still have a long way to go.

David Isteev on the phone.

Summarizing: brace yourself, but watch it.

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