With his documentaries How To Survive A Plague and The Death And Life Of Marsha P. Johnson, journalist David France has delivered some of the most vital and revealing reporting about the highs and lows of recent American LGBTQ+ history. But he’s never directed a movie quite like Welcome To Chechnya. In those earlier films, France made events from decades past feel newly relevant by thoughtfully compiling archival material. This time, France and his team rely mainly on footage shot just a few years ago, mostly in and around Russia’s Chechen Republic, where a network of underground activists have worked to sneak desperate people out of the country to spare them from torture, rape, and murder at the hands of the virulently homophobic local authorities.
Here’s something else that’s new: To protect the identities of his subjects, France employs cutting-edge digital imaging, to replace their faces with actors who’ve volunteered to serve as their “masks.” Welcome To Chechnya doesn’t just use this device in static talking-head shots but also in the more casual “hangout” scenes, where the subjects chat, bicker, and kill time while hunkering down in secret shelters. If France didn’t alert viewers to the masking technology at the start of the documentary, the trick wouldn’t be that easy to spot. The faux faces have a little haze around their edges, but no matter which way the heads turn, everything’s in the proper perspective. It’s uncanny.
The advanced tech also serves a larger purpose. In addition to obscuring the identities of people whose families could be shamed (or worse) if the wrong people scrutinized the film, the masks speak to the larger theme of Welcome To Chechnya and of France’s work in general: the ridiculous lengths that queer citizens around the world have had to go to throughout history just to be allowed to exist.
Welcome To Chechnya is part real-life political thriller, part disturbing exposé. France provides some context to what necessitated this risky human-smuggling operation. Russia in general has hardly ever been a haven for LGBTQ+ individuals. But Chechnya’s been especially dangerous since 2016, when the republic’s bearded, ultra-macho leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, ramped up his rhetoric about cultural purity, and started insisting to the international press that his region was devoid of gay people.
France peppers in alarming news clips of Kadyrov, along with some shocking footage of roving gangs persecuting gay citizens. The film also includes conventional confessional-style interviews, wherein the refugees talk about what they’re fleeing. (In one of the more chilling interviews, a woman using the pseudonym “Anya” says her uncle pledged to out her to her government-affiliated father unless she had sex with him.)
Mostly though, Welcome To Chechnya follows these people through a succession of tense days and nights, as they try to dodge the law while waiting for the window to open for them to escape Russia entirely. Some of these scenes are relatively mundane—take, for example, when the younger evacuees scour the internet to try to find out whether a closeted Chechen pop star has been arrested. And some are more harrowing, as when one of the men tries to commit suicide and his roommates in the safe house yell at him for selfishly risking all their lives with a self-inflicted medical emergency.
What emerges is an informative and gripping look at a still-unfolding human rights crisis, which hasn’t drawn as much attention from the international press as it deserves—perhaps because there’s scarcely a corner of the globe these past five years that hasn’t been dealing with its own fights against autocracy and bigotry. What’s perhaps most remarkable about Welcome To Chechnya is the level-headed perspective many of these subjects have about what’s happening to them. Some of them don’t even blame their oppressors much, seeing themselves as part of the long tradition of authoritarian governments consolidating power by finding an “other” to demean. “It’s politics,” one shrugs. “People have nothing to do with it.”