From acclaimed journalist and Oscar-nominated director David France (How to Survive a Plague), Welcome to Chechnya, debuting Tuesday, June 30 (10:00-11:45 p.m. ET/PT), brings to light the work of a group of activists in the Russian republic of Chechnya risking their lives to combat the deadly anti-LGBTQ torture campaign that has escalated in the country. With unfettered access and a commitment to protecting anonymity, this searing and intimate documentary exposes these gravely underreported atrocities while highlighting an extraordinary group of people confronting the brutality head-on.
Welcome to Chechnya will also be available to stream on HBO GO, HBO NOW, and on HBO via HBO Max and other partners’ platforms.
Welcome to Chechnya had its World Premiere at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Editing, and its International Premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival, where it won a Teddy Award and the Panorama Audience Award for Best Documentary. The film’s HBO debut in June is in recognition of LGBT Pride Month.
Since 2016, Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of the Southern Russian republic of Chechnya, has vowed to “cleanse the blood” of LGBTQ Chechens, allowing for a government-sanctioned effort to detain, torture and kill them. The result is a republic where gay and transgender citizens live in secrecy and fear, constantly under threat of detention, torture, and death at the hands of the authorities or their proxies.
In this environment of prejudice and hate, with only faint global condemnation and no action from the Kremlin, an underfunded coalition of LGBTQ activists mobilizes into action despite having little experience in such dangerous work. Welcome to Chechnya’s style of guerilla filmmaking highlights the fraught day-to-day challenges of this vast and secretive pipeline of activists who have taken matters into their own hands, themselves facing unimaginable risks to rescue their fellow LGBTQ citizens.
Since 2017, David Isteev, the Crisis Response Coordinator for the nation-wide Russian LGBT Network, and Olga Baranova, Director of the Moscow Community Center for LGBT+ Initiatives, offer a secure hotline to call for comfort, assistance escaping and safe passage to freedom, often hiding at-risk members of the LGBTQ community at a Moscow shelter. Their underground network of collaborators stretches around the globe.
In addition to highlighting the work of the activists, Welcome to Chechnya features the stories of gay men and women who have made the difficult decision to leave their homes and countries. Their faces and voices have been digitally altered with a groundbreaking new digital “face double” technique, a haunting innovation that allows the survivors to share their journeys and first-hand accounts of survival and escape. The film also features disturbing video evidence of the torture suffered by gay men and women in Chechnya.
“Akhmad,” a shelter resident who survived brutality, is morose as he prepares to seek asylum in Canada, knowing he will never be truly safe. Another resident, “Grisha,” is ethnically Russian and was working in Chechnya when he was captured. During his torture and captivity, the thought of his longtime boyfriend kept him going and after nearly a year apart, the two tearfully reunite in a secret safehouse in Moscow. His family comes under intense pressure to turn him over. After an attempted break-in, activist Isteev encourages them all to race toward the border.
“Anya,” whose father is a high-ranking Chechen official, seeks help after her uncle discovers her sexuality and begins blackmailing her for sex. Isteev and his team work quickly to extract her before her family becomes aware of her disappearance, placing her in a secure apartment in an undisclosed foreign location.
Activist Baranova, usually focused on ensuring the safety of others, is herself forced to seek asylum outside Russia after law enforcement officials discover the nature of her work. While fellow activist Isteev admits things have gotten much harder, he asserts, “We can’t just walk away. This story needs a proper ending.” In the face of hardship, he still believes. As he puts it: “If they don’t kill you, you’re a winner.” Isteev, who understands the need to draw international attention to the situation in Chechnya, encourages one of the survivors to bravely come forward and share their story, hoping that widespread pressure on the Chechan government will ultimately result in meaningful change.
By the close of the film, 151 people have been located with the help of the LGBTQ pipeline, while 40,000 others remain in hiding.
Welcome to Chechnya is directed by David France; produced by Alice Henty, Joy A. Tomchin, Askold Kurov and David France; written by David France and Tyler H. Walk; edited by Tyler H. Walk; executive producers, Joy A. Tomchin, Neal Baer, Kevin Jennings, Masha Gessen, Jonathan Logan, Jess Search, Lekha Singh, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Alan Getz, Justin Mikita, Stan Tomchin. For HBO: executive producers, Nancy Abraham, Lisa Heller.