By David-Elijah Nahmod
Now airing on HBO, David France's Welcome to Chechnya is an emotionally devastating look at LGBT life inside the Russian Republic.
As the film opens, a young lesbian named Anya is talking on the phone to a man who will help her to escape the country — her uncle is trying to blackmail her into having sex with him. The uncle says that if she doesn't comply, he will out her to her virulently homophobic father, a high ranking government official. Anya has genuine fears that she could be killed if outed.
But Anya's story, as horrifying as it is, is not the worst thing we see in Welcome to Chechnya. Found footage of a young gay man being brutally raped by his captors is challenging to watch, yet this is typical of the horrific, state-sanctioned behavior that goes on in the Republic.
Much of the film follows the work being done by a Moscow based Queer activist group, which helps targeted LGBT Chechens flee the country. This entails hiding them in safe houses, getting them across the border, obtaining visas and finding host countries who will take them in. Canada has been very welcoming to these refugees, but as the film tells us, the administration of Donald Trump has not allowed a single one of them to emigrate to the United States.
Though several people fleeing the country allowed themselves to be filmed on camera, their faces were disguised by computer technology to protect their identities. There's the possibility that, even after settling into a new country, the Chechnya government could come after them and return them to Chechnya, where they could face torture or even execution.
Viewers get a glimpse of how complicit the government is in these horrific actions. In an interview done for American television, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who is supported by Russian President Vladimir Putin, is asked point black about the arrests and torture of gays in his territory. He denies the allegations, saying, "we don't have any gays."
The film allows us to get to know one of the refugees rather well. He's identified as Grisha — not his real name. After being held and tortured for twelve days, he's released and joined by his boyfriend in Moscow. They decide to flee the country — Grisha's entire family flees with them after they receive threats of violence.
Grisha is a courageous young man. After his family is moved to a secret location in Europe, Grisha comes forward, reveals his true face and name to the cameras, and files suit in the Russian courts. This is a profoundly powerful sequence in the film.
Neal Baer, a producer on the film, has a history of bringing strong gay content to television screens.
"I came out seven years ago," Baer tells Echo. "But long before I came out, I knew I was gay when I was five years old."
Baer helped to create the first ongoing character with HIV in a primetime drama on ER, and incorporated stories about transgender characters on Law & Order: SVU.
"It was my way of making peace with myself for coming out," he said. "The story on ER with the first ongoing HIV character — played by Gloria Reuben — I think was an important story showing that people could live lives that were healthy and also productive. We really fought to dispel the stigma that was pushed on people with HIV."
Baer says that he jumped at the chance to work on Welcome to Chechnya as an executive producer.
"I had read Masha Gessen's pieces in the New Yorker, so I knew about it, but I didn't know enough," he said. "I am hoping that this film helps us know more than we know now so that we can take action."
Viewers of the film are invited to visit the film's website, where a Take Action option appears on the site's menu. People are offered four ways in which they can step up to the plate and help in the fight to end what is happening in Chechnya.
"I think the film tells the story, but it doesn't just leave you with the question of now what, what can I do," Baer said. "There's lots we can do."
Baer spoke of how important it was to disguise the faces of the film's subjects, since the Chechen government issued an edict to find the refugees and bring them back to the country wherever they might be in the world. He also spoke of the young man who came forward and allowed his true face to be revealed.
"In the theater at the Sundance Film Festival, people gasped," Baer said. "Because he has been public. He's been the public face of this in Moscow. With the action steps that you can take to help support him in his quest to support his legal case. So that is the reason that he and he alone is shown because he is already public, and he gave permission."
Baer is sure that Kadyrov and Putin are aware of the film, which is attracting attention and has won awards at the Sundance and Berlin Film Festivals. He addressed where the level of hate that we see in Chechnya might be coming from.
It's a complicated question," he said. "There's the invasions, Chechen independence; there's always a way to look at scapegoating. Whose fault is this? We see that with Trump in his scapegoating of people of color, for instance, and using coded words like 'hombre' when he was in Tulsa. He uses racist imagery in his tweets and his racist comments to provoke hate and fear. That's been done in Chechnya, and I think it relates to who the president is and what his own views are, and for whatever reason, why he's so fearful of homosexuals is a good question. It's also about standing up and showing that they're strong and macho, so that's a very complex question that comes out of their history. But we see scapegoating in the United States and Poland of LGBT people, we saw it in Nazi Germany, so this is nothing new. Find a group, blame them, and everything will be okay."
Baer hopes that viewers of the film will think about the 50th anniversary of Pride and realize that we're not done yet.
"We have to move forward," he said. "Seventy countries have laws against homosexual and trans behavior. Thirteen I believe still have death penalties on their books, so we have to work to eliminate this. Only last week or two weeks ago the Supreme Court ruled that you cannot fire someone in the United States for being Queer. That's in 2020, so we can't take this rose-colored view and say that things are so much better. There are things that need to be done. People are still being tortured and murdered and denied the freedom to love whomever they want to love because of the views of people in power."
Welcome to Chechnya is now airing in rotation on HBO. Find it on demand July 1 and streaming on HBO Max.