Berlinale Bloggers 2020
If your only chance of staying alive is to flee your own country, what can you do but get out? “Welcome to Chechnya”, screening in the Panorama section of the Berlinale, is a documentary film about the systematic persecution of LGBTQI people in Chechnya and activists’ efforts to extract and protect them.
By Ieva Šukytė
Under President Ramzan Kadyrov, in office since 2016, the Russian federal republic of Chechnya has committed a huge number of crimes against people from the LGBTQI community. This documentary film Welcome to Chechnya by US filmmaker David France shows how David Isteev and Olga Baranova, activists in Russia’s pro-LGBT network and staffers at the Moscow Community Center for LGBTQI+, risk their own lives by engaging in covert rescue operations to help hundreds of people flee the country.
Protecting victimsTo protect victims of persecution and torture, David France employs “deepfake technology”, replacing their faces with those of US activists and even using different voices as well. Only one actual victim’s face is shown at the very end of the film: Maxim Lapunov was the only one who dared to go to court and publicly testify about the attacks and murders in Chechnya. The identities of the other activists remain secret, but their first-hand accounts reveal the truth about systematic persecution in Chechnya.
A brave fight against brutalityIn addition to video material of victims’ accounts and evidence of the violence, the film also shows recordings, using hidden mobile phone cameras, of targeted attacks on men and women in Chechnya who are maltreated, beaten, stoned, imprisoned, even murdered by unidentified assailants and in some cases even by their own family members for the sake of “family honour”. The LGBTQ activists try to extract and protect victims of the Chechnyan state-sanctioned purge, but their rescue operations often fail.
France’s film is a work of investigative reporting using video recordings and first-hand accounts to document outbreaks of toxic masculinity and homophobic traditionalism and to expose the brutal crimes of a Chechnyan “cleansing” campaign that has been hushed up by Russia. The LGBTQI+ community are clearly unwanted in Chechnya.