Gay writer and doc filmmaker David France has a knack for uncovering and bringing attention to subjects that deserve it. His 2004 book “Our Fathers: The Secret Life of the Catholic Church in an Age of Scandal” shone a bright light on the priesthood sex scandal (including Boston) more than 10 years before the Oscar-winning movie “Spotlight.” France’s 2012 doc and subsequent 2016 book “How to Survive a Plague” took a unique approach to the subject of the AIDS crisis. His timely, and somewhat controversial doc, “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson,” from 2017 focused on the important role of the transgender community in the LGBT movement.
France once again makes the most of timing with his difficult to watch, but necessary, doc “Welcome to Chechnya” (HBO Documentary Films). Beginning with the disclaimer, “for their safety, people fleeing for their lives have been digitally disguised,” France then introduces us to David Isteev, the Russian LGBT Network’s Crisis Response Coordinator, who is on the phone with “Anya,” a 21-year-old Chechen lesbian whose life is in danger. From that point on, we watch as Isteev makes plans to rescue the woman.
Under the radical right-wing leadership of maniacal ruler and Kremlin-backed strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, mass detention, torture and murder of LGBT people has become a common occurrence in Chechnya, a closed society with its own customs and language. Being gay is considered a disgrace in Chechnya, a shame so great that it can only be washed away by blood, leading many to kill their own gay family members.
In addition to seeing labors of Isteev, we meet Olga Baranova, director of the Moscow Community Center for LGBT+ Initiatives, who is also involved in rescue and relocation efforts. The mother of young Filip, Olga used to work in advertising, and we can see the toll the work takes on her, and how she will eventually become an activist “casualty.”
At the racing heart of “Welcome to Chechnya” is a terrifying real-life thriller unfolding before our eyes involving “Grisha,” 30, a Russian event planner working in Chechnya, who was abducted and tortured for being gay. Reunited with his boyfriend “Bogdan”, 29, they are moved into a secret shelter set up in Moscow, until they can be relocated to another country where it will be safe for them to be gay. In addition to seeking asylum for himself and “Bogdan,” as well as helping his family relocate because they have been receiving death threats, “Grisha” wants to take legal action to fight for the truth and his rights.
At a press conference, “Grisha,” described as a victim who filed a criminal complaint, speaks publicly for the first time. He is introduced by his real name — Maxim Lapunov — and the “digital disguise” dissolves. With his lawsuit filed against the Chechen government, he becomes the symbol of the anti-gay purge. As they adjust to life in their new country, Maxim and “Bogdan” will be hiding in one way or another for the rest of their lives.
Interspersed throughout is video footage obtained by LGBT activists showing violent assaults, rapes and murders of gay men and lesbians. As the gay purge spreads to Ingushetia and Dagestan, it becomes clear that anyone can find themselves in the shoes of gay Chechens. If there is any good news, it’s that 151 people have been settled abroad (44 to Canada, 0 to the U.S. due to the Trump administration) by the Russian LGBT Network during the first two years of the purge.