Welcome to Chechnya was one of several movies at True/False to come to the festival straight from Sundance. The documentary by David France (How to Survive a Plague) is this year’s True Life Fund film, which raises proceeds to help the selected film’s subject. The organizers picked an important film to highlight, and a cause so immediate and directly beneficial that it was difficult not to empty the entire contents of my wallet into the donation bucket on the way out of the theater.
Welcome to Chechnya follows the work of the Russian LGBTQ Network, an activist group working to combat genocide in Chechnya. Since 2016, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has led a pogrom against the republic’s LGBTQ+ population, complete with sanctioned detainment, torture and execution. The network France follows has created a kind of underground railroad, fielding pleas for help from endangered Chechens, putting them up in safe houses, and finding ways to smuggle them out of the country. The network’s leader, David Isteev, also hopes to convince the Russian government to open an investigation. To do that, he needs a torture survivor to go public. Doing so would mean a lifetime of hiding for whoever is brave enough to speak up.
France is no stranger to framing historical narratives about LGBTQ oppression in a way that communicates immediacy. How to Survive a Plague used the trappings of a thriller to tell the story of the AIDS crisis to great effect. Welcome to Chechnya lets France use what he’s learned from his other films to tell a current story, with consequences that are still unfolding. To be fair, he doesn’t have to do much to make the movie grab audiences by the collar. Much of the dramatic tension is already there.
This is a harrowing documentary, and viewers should know that there are numerous triggers throughout the film. Welcome to Chechnya depicts several scenes of torture, and one terrifying instance of self-harm. None of this is gratuitous. Every piece of activist-gathered footage or brush with death that France captures is necessary to communicate the severity of the situation his subjects find themselves in. Of course, knowing that doesn’t make it any easier to watch.
France maintains the anonymity of those fleeing for their lives by using their network-assigned pseudonyms, as well as fascinating face-altering technology. We see just how much the tech changes subjects’ appearances after one of them decides to go public. Maxim Lapunov (introduced initially as “Grisha”) emerges as the movie’s hero when he decides to come forward with his story. When Lapunov appears at a press conference, the disguising tech melts away, revealing the subtle alterations in his face as it’s revealed.
In addition to Lapunov’s story, Welcome to Chechnya follows the work of Isteev, his colleague Olga Baranova and other activists in the Russian LGBTQ Network as they try to rescue at-risk individuals, whose extractions are nail-bitingly intense. A 21-year-old lesbian called Anya, the daughter of a Chechen government official, poses the riskiest attempt in the whole film. Caught between two options at home that each mean certain death, and with a father whose government position ensures Anya’s disappearance will mean a border crackdown, Isteev and Baranova have only a few hours to get Anya not just out of Chechnya, but out of the country entirely. France accompanies them on their journey to the airport and through security, putting viewers’ hearts in their throats with every checkpoint stop.
Lapunov’s arc is the dramatic center of the film, with risks that go far beyond his own safety. A gay Russian man detained and tortured while working in Chechnya, Lapunov’s family is already under threat from the Chechen and Russian governments for making noise about his detainment. Later, Lapunov’s husband, who goes by Bogdan, joins him. A visit to his family, relocated by the network to a safe house, puts everyone at risk, and prompts them to flee the country ahead of schedule. After all that, Lapunov finally decides to go public with his story, a heroic action, but one so fraught that it’s hard not to wish he’d stay silent, if only for his own sake.
With comprehensive access and a vital narrative, Welcome to Chechnya is an important work of journalism. David France uses lessons he’s learned from directing and producing his previous films to make a film that’s frightening in its truth, and painful in its depiction of its subjects’ reality. It’s the kind of life-risking superheroism that makes its viewers put whatever petty squabbles define our lives aside, take notice, and hopefully be inspired to take some kind of action.
/Film Rating: 8 out of 10
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