SUNDANCE 2020 DOCUMENTARY REVIEW! Welcome To Chechnya is easily one of the most searing and vital documentaries of the year. Featuring covert 4k footage from people on the ground, the doc follows a band of LGBTQ+ activists in their efforts to save and facilitate the safe escape of gay Chechens from brutal persecution in the southern province of Russia. This masterful documentary from David France weaves high-stakes storytelling and investigative reporting to expose the ongoing situation, resulting in an unforgettable film.
Welcome To Chechnya opens as one activist is standing outside at night, smoking a cigarette, awaiting a call from a possible refugee. The phone rings and a girl explains that her uncle found out that she is a lesbian. Now he is demanding sex from her in order to keep her secret. If she refuses, her uncle will tell her father, and she will be put to death. The team acts fast to plan her escape from the country in a matter of 24 hours.
Meanwhile, a gay man who has been living at the activist’s shelter explains how Chechen authorities lured him on a gay hook-up app. They then tortured him and forced him to expose other LGBTQ+ friends. Further still, this same man’s family was targeted as well, including his mother, sister, and 3-year-old nephew. The network’s goal is to get him, his boyfriend, and his entire family out of Chechnya and into Canada to seek asylum.
“…one of the most searing and vital documentaries of the year.”
France perfectly balances storytelling and information. He engages us in the stories of these individuals while at the same time giving us a big picture view of the politics at play. In 2017, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov began waging a war to “cleanse the blood” of LGBTQ+ Chechens. With Putin and Moscow turning a blind eye, Chechnya began quietly encouraging the persecution and murder of gay people. Before anyone knew it, such people were targeted as the cause of all the problems in the country. With little to no money, a small group of activists began to set up housing and a path out of the country for those needing it.
Fair warning here, some of the footage shown is gut-wrenching. A woman is dragged from a car and brutally beaten with it cutting off just a split second before a man slams a cinder block on her head. A gay man is, ironically raped, by a group of straight men, his shrill cries for help falling on cruel, deaf ears.
In still another moment, a man is attacked for looking too feminine with punches to the face, kicks, spitting, and expletives. This film is not for the passive nor or the squeamish. Or maybe it is. It is too easy to turn a blind eye to that which doesn’t immediately affect us.
Welcome To Chechnya humanizes the urgent and dire problem that continues to this day and defies the viewer not to take action. See this film. See it now. This is tour de force documentary filmmaking on a level rarely seen and experienced.
Welcome To Chechnya screened at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.