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Film review: Welcome to Chechnya

Film

Content warnings of suicide, sexual assault and hate crimes preface Welcome to Chechnya, but not even these cautions prepare the viewer for what’s to come in this documentary about the persecution of LGBTQI+ people in the Russian republic.

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Welcome to Chechnya starts with journalist-turned-activist David Isteev calling a young woman named Anya.

She tells David her uncle has discovered she is a lesbian and threatened that if she doesn’t have sex with him, he will reveal her secret to her father, a high-ranking Chechnyan official. It’s up to David and other Russian LGBT Network volunteers to make sure Anya is not killed by her family, but escapes from them instead.

Director David France’s harrowing documentary, screening as part of the 2020 Adelaide Film Festival, feels like a drama. It was filmed in 2017 at the height of the Chechnyan anti-gay purges, when authorities were abducting LGBTIQ+ men and women. Victims were imprisoned, starved, tortured and sometimes murdered because of their sexual identity.

The graphic scenes – such as a young boy who attempts to take his own life, and hand-held footage of another being sexually assaulted – prompt the content warnings. But the failure of the Russian justice system and the lack of an adequate asylum process to help survivors reach safety in other countries make this documentary even more piercing.

The film follows France and other evacuation coordinators shuttling vulnerable LGBTIQ+ citizens from Chechnya to safe houses in Moscow. As we watch people race onto planes or lie to police officers, it feels like a carefully choreographed Hollywood scene. But these are real people; there’s no chance to re-shoot if they make a mistake.

There are moments of lightness, such as when one of the refugees’ mothers jokingly refers to herself as a hero. But when the film’s main protagonist, Grisha, runs along a beach with his partner, teasing and flirting, a heavy feeling begins to descend. It’s apparent these moments are rare in their narrative, which makes us want to enjoy them even more.

Just like how the documentary began, it ends with David. He’s exhausted now, having dealt with thousands of victims. He’s calling someone else.

Welcome to Chechnya is screening as part of the Adelaide Film Festival with another screening on October 22 at Palace Nova Eastend Cinema.  The 2020 Adelaide Film Festival continues until October 25. Read more previews and stories here.

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