Welcome to Chechnya, which premieres on HBO tonight at 10 p.m. ET, refuses to let viewers look away. And you will want to look away, especially when this documentary about the anti-gay purge in the southwestern Russian republic shows you disturbing camera phone footage of LGBTQ people being beaten and tortured. They cry, and beg, and whimper and you will absolutely want to detach yourself; but director David France won’t allow it.
France—who is the filmmaker behind the Oscar-nominated documentary on the AIDs epidemic, How to Survive a Plague, as well the critically-acclaimed doc The Death And Life Of Marsha P. Johnson—goes above and beyond to ensure viewers can’t escape those human emotions. Many of the subjects he films are young gay men and women on the run from Russia’s Chechen Republic, where LGBTQ people are being hunted, detained, tortured, and killed. Their identities must be protected. Yet rather than blur out their faces, or film them in a dark room with a distorted voice, France—with the help of some top-of-the-line visual effects from Industrial Light and Magic—digitally altered the appearance of his subjects, with face and voice doubles. (Kind of like The Irishman, but for a humanitarian cause.) You’re not seeing the real eyes of Grisha (a pseudonym), a 30-year-old Russian man who was beaten and maimed by the Chechen government for 12 days. But the tears feel very real nonetheless.
Welcome to Chechnya centers around a network of underground activists who have been helping gay people escape Chechnya since this “cleansing” campaign began, around 2016. By the time filming concluded, these groups, which include The Russian LGBT Network and of the Moscow Community Center for LGBTI+ Initiatives, had helped 151 people escape and relocate. The film press notes estimate that around 40,000 others remain in hiding. “Guerrilla” filming had to be done in secret, and, now that France has left the underground pipeline and it is known he was reporting on them, he will never be able to return. That alone seems a worthy reason to celebrate his documentary, which shines a light on perhaps the most overlooked and urgent humanitarian crisis of the 21st century.
But the film itself is also a great one, following in the footsteps of the celebrated How to Survive a Plague. It’s comprehensive, thoughtful, and often exciting—the scenes in which the runaways are trying to get through the government checkpoints play like a blockbuster thriller. The full weight of these activists’ and survivors’ bravery comes to a head at the climax of the film when, at a press conference, Grisha’s true identity is revealed both to the world, and to the viewer. It’s an incredible moment and an incredible film. Welcome to Chechnya deserves your attention. After everything these people have been through, after everything they’ve lost, our attention is all they are asking for. It feels like the least we can do.
Watch Welcome to Chechnya on HBO