HomeUKWelcome to Chechnya review – harrowing tales of the 'gay purge'

Welcome to Chechnya review – harrowing tales of the ‘gay purge’

Last month would have been a time of Pride marches and parties, of special-edition rainbow trainers and glittery face paint. But, as the saying goes, the first Pride was a riot, and many would argue that the widespread Black Lives Matter protests and queer community activism have made this the most authentic one in years. I implore you to watch Welcome to Chechnya: The Gay Purge (BBC Four) as a belated addition to that. David France has made a difficult, distressing and often tremendously bleak film about the torture and murder of LGBT people in Chechnya, and the brave efforts of community activists and organisers to “extract” them from the region.

France is responsible for two other queer-themed documentaries. How to Survive a Plague told the story of Act Up’s determined campaign to make drugs available to people with Aids, while The Death and Life of Marsha P Johnson saw him loosely investigate the circumstances around the death of the pioneering activist. Like its predecessors, Welcome to Chechnya is necessarily grim and harrowing, but it is also hopeful, if you view it as a testament to human kindness, ingenuity and courage.

It opens with a horror story – tragically, one of many. David Isteev, a crisis response co-ordinator for the Russian LGBT Network, is on the phone to a young Chechen woman, “Anya”. Almost everyone has a pseudonym, and for good reason. Her uncle has discovered that she is gay, and is threatening to tell her father, a high-ranking government official, unless she has sex with him. She wants to leave the family home, but does not know how to do it without being discovered. It is the beginning of a long, painful extraction process.

Anya’s story is one of the main threads. The other is the story of “Grisha”, a 30-year-old man who went to work in Chechnya only to be arrested, tortured and forced to give up details of other men in his phone, who would inevitably face the same brutality as him, if not worse. The mistake the authorities made was letting him go, he explains, but his release was far from the end of his story. It is devastating to hear him talk of the Chechen people with affection, to hear his hurt that they could turn on him as they did. His mother, a wonderful woman, wisely insists that it is not necessarily about the place. “It happens in every country. A person gets some power and starts abusing it.”

We first meet Grisha at a secret safe house in Moscow, so carefully guarded that when one resident attempts to kill themself, a decision is made that calling an ambulance would be too risky. Over two years, the Russian LGBT Network managed to resettle 151 people fleeing Chechnya, many of them coming through the shelter. It is a remarkable place. France’s access, too, is incredible, and one can only imagine the level of trust he must have inspired. He had to pose as a tourist in order to make it, and has told of using one phone for filming and another phone full of tourist snapshots to show to authorities.

Given that the risk to many of the people who are filmed remains so high, France employed a “digital transplant” technique, in which volunteers’ faces are digitally grafted on to those for whom public exposure might threaten their lives. It is not intrusive, though it gives everyone a slightly otherworldly air; it is not until late in the film, when one of the men sheds his digital disguise, in a moment of breathtaking drama, that you notice it much at all.

It is unbearably tense at points. Trips to the airport, to smuggle people out of the region are hair-raising; I practically held my breath until one plane finally took off. There are indelible scenes of brutality here, too. So-called “trophy videos”, taken by those responsible for “hunting” LGBT people, make for sickening interludes. They show rape, torture and murder. The Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, laughs when he is asked about the purges, denies them and claims: “We don’t have any gays … to purify our blood; if they are here, take them.” The Kremlin says the allegations of mass roundups are unfounded and that there is no persecution.

The evidence to the contrary is plentiful and plain. By the end of the programme, even Isteev seems to be losing his faith in justice. He admits that he is tired, but insists there is still more work to do. “This story needs a proper ending,” he says. “And that’s still very far away.”

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