"It's politics. It has nothing to do with people. " The statement is added Vladimir Putin i Welcome to Chechnya as an explanation of how a number of systematic abuse against LGBT people can be carried out by the authorities of one of Russia's republics without the Russian president lifting a finger.
When the terrorism in Chechnya increased in the early 2000s, Putin joined a pro-Russian regime Ramzan Kadyrov in the tip. As a thank you for the loyalty, Kadyrov got free hands to govern his country as he wished. The irresponsibility was total and allowed a brutal pursuit of gays with disappearances, torture and extrajudicial executions in the corrupt, ultra-conservative and Islam-dominated republic.
Details of the persecution have leaked, despite the regime's (usually) effective methods of controlling the people.
The persecution started in 2017, and now American David France is bringing the atrocities to the public. France has worked on LGBT issues as both a documentary and grave journalist, and Welcome to Chechnya has become an outrageous and important film with screenings at Sundance Film Festival and Berlin.
The horrors of the regime
The excitement is high when we see refugee people and their dangerous journeys out of the country and towards a secret hiding place. We get to feel a bit of the all-consuming fear of a regime notorious for perpetrating atrocities far beyond our own borders.
The documentary is intense, intimate and emotional – but just as straightforward as it shows us what Putin and his co-conspirators will not admit: that persecuted people has everything to do with politics – an inhuman policy.
David Isteev and Olga Baranova are activists in the Russian LGBT Network, an organization that works for LGBT rights. The two help the pursued to hide.
The repression in Chechnya is so brutal, and the reach of Kadyrov and his men is so great that few of the persecuted are willing to share their stories
Receives killing threats
Despite their lack of experience in how to keep people at risk hidden or getting the papers they need, they have ventured into the unknown to meet an urgent need: Each month, they welcome about 25 people to their hiding place in Moscow, a city that defies its poor LGBT reputation, is "safe" compared to Grozny.
They work uninterruptedly, risking their own lives during dangerous missions and fighting to keep the enormous stress at bay; the work entails receiving death threats.
Olga is even looking for a safer country for herself and her son. She helped a lesbian family escape, but they were discovered by a family member, who stopped the escape attempt at the airport in Minsk.
For the persecuted, a safe hiding place in another country does not mean an end to the trials, but a beginning. By fleeing from their home country, they have to start all over again: They cannot use their own language, take up the same profession or speak to relatives. All ties they have must be broken. The stigma of "a shame so strong that it must be washed away with blood" does not disappear, despite lifelong socialization and violent reinforcements. The traumas of what they have been through in terms of arrests and torture remain as strong.
Some can no longer cope. Én tries to commit suicide by cutting over his heart rate while in Moscow's hiding place. The others crash with bandages; Hospitalization is not an option.
Anya is the daughter of a high-ranking officer in Chechnya's government, and therefore considerable resources have been spent on getting hold of her. She has never been home alone, but now has to wait indoors as activists try to find a country to relocate her to. It takes six months, and a visa seems impossible to obtain. Finally, the experience of being trapped in a foreign place and the claustrophobia is so strong that she can no longer cope. She runs off, and hasn't been seen since.
The US-produced film makes a big point that while Canada has received 44 of 151 survivors that the Russian LGBT network has helped out of Chechnya, the United States and its Trump administration have received none.
To protect the people in the film, advanced technology has been used as "digital disguise" to hide their real face and identity. The repression in Chechnya is so brutal, and the global reach of Kadyrov and his men so great, that few of the persecuted are willing to share their experiences. It is speculated that the famous pop star Zelim Bakaev is one of the victims; he disappeared in Grozny in 2017 when his sister was getting married.
The stigma of "a shame so strong that it must be washed away with blood" does not disappear, despite lifelong socialization and violent reinforcements.
Blurry video footage from mobile phones shows appalling attacks on gays, but testifies to only a fraction of the atrocities perpetrated in a nation whose leaders claim to have no gays – and if there were any, their families would have killed them before the authorities would å intervene.
Abducted and tortured
Maxim Lapunov (who uses the alias "Grisha" before appearing) is the first victim to go out in public; he goes to the authorities to start an investigation, and also holds a press conference in Moscow. His experiences are similar to many others: He is abducted, taken into a car and ends up in a camp with other persecuted who are tortured. Mobile phones are confiscated and searched to find other potential victims.
Lapunov has luck, as a Russian and thus for visitors to count in the region he is released – a decision the regime will soon regret.
Lapunov has now lived in ever-changing addresses for six months with his entire family, after they have all been terrorized and received threats – but are now reunited with his girlfriend.
A life in hiding offers limited opportunities and is a heavy stress that feels stressful to everyone. In contrast, Lapunov's courage is to express himself and show who he is, the very essence of a life if it is to be worth living.
It is not an official trailer out at the time of writing. A clip can be seen here.