Welcome to Chechnya

in 22nd Thessaloniki Documentary Festival

by Ioanna Papageorgiou

Or how director David France documents a painful, hidden truth with some strategic digital disguises.


It all begins with a warning: “For their safety, people fleeing for their lives have been digitally disguised”. It is a fascinating warning. Who are these people? And how have they been disguised? Will their faces be pixelated, erased, what? As the socking, brutal answer to the first question starts to unfold, you grab hold of the second question and don’t let go. As if your preoccupation with it will somehow shelter you from the horrors you gradually become aware of.

This is the little-known story of a genocide: the deliberate extermination of the LGBTQ community in Chechnya. Not once upon a time. Now. It started in 2017, by accident we are told by David Isteev, the Crisis Response Coordinator of the Russian LGBT Network, which has worked tirelessly to get people out of Chechnya. “Imagine, in the 21st century, in a supposedly secular society,” he says, people are killed and maimed, even worse, families are urged to kill their own children or siblings simply because of their homosexuality. And suddenly the desperate plea of the woman on the phone in the first few moments of this film makes sense. She was begging for a way to escape the country, since her uncle found out her sexual orientation and was blackmailing her to have sex with him in order not to reveal her secret to her father who works for the government.

A government that is at the moment the source of all evils in Chechnya, led by Ramzan Kadyrov, who is enshrined in a more and more all-encompassing cult of personality. He is Putin’s man, doing Putin’s bidding. Thus ensuring that the infamous Russian strongman, having managed at long and very bloody last, to take control of Chechnya, turns a blind eye to Kadyrov’s poorest of records on human rights. But David France does not linger long on the apparent villains of this tragedy. He is not interested in why this is happening, as much as in the fact that this is happening. Not once upon a time. Now. And after all, in these “Trumped” times of ours, it is not too difficult to grasp how easily (and scarily) it has become for white, straight, populist men to rise to power and, once there, to get away with everything. Or that when our freedoms of speech and expression are pushed to the breaking point, women and LGBTQ people are the first to pay the price.

No, France is keener on giving a voice to the unsung heroes (Isteev and his colleague Olga Baranova – a fugitive herself now) and the voiceless: the victims fleeing for their lives. So as the suspense on when and how the answer to the “digital disguise” question is mounting, you are presented with the basic facts, you get a glimpse of the violence against people of the LGBTQ community in amateur phone videos intercepted by the Russian LGBT network and finally, accompanying Olga, you arrive at the Moscow shelter. Here you meet some of the people rescued from Chechnya, most awaiting a visa to escape Russia altogether and flee to a more compassionate country (Canada mainly). Here the answer to the question you held on so tightly is finally answered. You think. Their faces are not actually altered, just blurred a bit – you hardly notice. You can still tell who is looking at you, who is talking to you – the human being behind the presumed mask. So, it’s safe to let go of the preoccupation that sheltered you, right?

You are now properly open and vulnerable just as this documentary becomes “Grisha’s” story. A 30-year-old who escaped Chechnya but must wait for his partner and his whole family to do the same, before they can all leave Russia. There are still some effectively placed references to Kadyrov and Putin, while the few, sparsely spaced intercepted phone videos become more and more unspeakable, yet extremely telling. There is also mention of the case of the disappearance of a gay pop star, as well as the follow up to the developments in the situation of the girl on the phone, nicknamed “Anya”. But it is “Grisha” who has become the beating heart of the film.

The silent tears in the arms of his partner when they reunite at the airport. The interlocking of their fingers. The sobs of his mother when they see each other again, putting her love for her son, pure and simple, above everything else: tradition, religion, a quiet and safe life. The accusation mixed with pride in his sister’s eyes. The easy, playful smile of his niece. “Grisha’s” own dilemmas, worries and hopes. And, finally his decision to stop running and speak up publicly.

In front of the press, as he implores the Russian government to investigate the ongoing atrocity in Chechnya, his true name, Maxim Lapunov, and face are revealed. And your jaw drops as your mind races to catch up with your emotions. His face was not simply blurred after all, it was utterly altered. As his piercing blue eyes face you for the first time you slowly but surely realise that all this time, he, along with all the other LGBTQ refuges were essentially hiding in plain sight. Exactly as their powerful abusers do, albeit using different methods. But while Maxim did it to protect himself and his loved ones, they, Kadyrov, Putin and all, do it to continue their ruthless rule with impunity. 

This is the genius of this film. It shrewdly – just enough to draw your attention, without completely overwhelming it – uses a Deep Fake technique to uncover a difficult truth, engaging both your emotions and your mind. How apt and effectively ironic in the era of “fake news” and “alternative facts”. And how timely. As the end credits roll and you learn how many people the Russian LGBT network has evacuated from Chechnya, where things stand in Maxime’s case, and that the Trump administration, predictably, didn’t accept any LGBT refugees, it dawns on you that all the people that didn’t make it out in time, and all the people in similar predicaments around the world, are now, due to the pandemic, trapped, at home, with their abusers. Not once upon a time. Now.

Ioanna Papageorgiou
Edited by Karsten Kastelan