A new documentary screening in Australia exposes the horrors of Chechnya’s violent “gay purge” and the brave efforts of activists to rescue persecuted LGBTIQ Chechens.
Since 2016, Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of the Russian republic of Chechnya, has vowed to “cleanse the blood” of Chechnya. To do this, he sanctioned a brutal campaign to detain, torture and kill LGBTIQ people.
As a result, the region’s gay, lesbian and transgender citizens live in secrecy and fear. They’re constantly facing the threat of detention, torture, and death at the hands of authorities or proxies.
Independent news reports first shed light on coordinated campaign of torture and murder – dubbed the “gay purge” – targeting gay men and women under the direction of Chechen leaders.
However the Kremlin was not intervening. International condemnations were going unheard. Local activists, meanwhile, took matters into their own hands.
Welcome to Chechnya centres human rights activists David Isteev and Olga Baranova. Isteev works for the Russian LGBT Network, while Olga Baranova runs the Moscow Community Center for LGBT+ Initiatives.
The pair are two of the brave Russians helping LGBTIQ Chechens reach safety through underground support networks.
“If they don’t kill you, you’re a winner,” Isteev says.
Welcome to Chechnya is by acclaimed filmmaker David France. France previously filmed the queer documentaries How to Survive a Plague and The Death And Life Of Marsha P Johnson.
“This is a film about incredibly heroic activism carried out by the community itself,” France said.
“People who felt called upon to respond because the larger mechanisms of society were doing nothing.
“None of those people had any reason to believe that they would be brave enough to carry this out, yet they took it on at great risk to themselves.”
Over eighteen months, France returned to Russia several times to meet with survivors as the underground pipeline helped them to safety.
With the survivors’ permission, France and his small team filmed nonstop while posing as sightseeing tourists to avoid detection.
They spoke to several male and female Chechens who endured unimaginable violence, as well as those who had escaped.
Documentary uses face-swapping technology to protect survivors
France said he didn’t want to film the survivors in shadow or obscured, at the risk of detracting from their humanity.
“What I proposed to them, and what they were brave enough to accept, is that they let me shoot them without restriction,” he said.
“I promised that I would find some way to disguise them afterward. I wanted [to] convey the tragedy and the bravery and the perseverance of their lives.”
To achieve this, the filmmakers used cutting-edge AI and machine learning technology to digitally mask the film’s subjects.
The method is similar to “DeepFake” technology, but instead allows the victims of this terror to speak in their own words and someone else’s face.
France and his team called on US LGBTQ activists to lend their faces to shield the Chechens from danger. Voice doubles also replaced their dialogue to make the subjects untraceable.
France said the process allowed the individuals who have been silenced to regain their voice.
“Without this, they would still be shapeless forms in the shadows speaking with machine voices,” he said.
Activists struggle to obtain visas for persecuted Chechens
One such story is that of “Grisha,” a 30-year-old Russian who was working in Chechnya when he was detained and tortured for 12 days.
With the help of the underground pipeline, Grisha escaped to Moscow. There, he has tried to alert Russian authorities to the brutal anti-gay campaign.
However he was met with delays and stonewalling by the courts. Grisha, his boyfriend and some family members are now in another country.
He continues to fight for justice through the European court system.
Meanwhile, “Anya” is the daughter of a high-ranking Chechen government official. An uncle was blackmailing her about her sexual orientation.
She faced extreme danger and needed to escape, and activists moved her from shelter to shelter. But Russian authorities were in pursuit.
As activists petitioned distant countries to accept her, LGBTIQ locals in her temporary home country covertly saw to her daily needs.
But no visas materialised after six months. And when her helpers returned to her secret apartment, she was missing. Her whereabouts are unknown.
Welcome to Chechnya is screening in Australia
By the end of Welcome to Chechnya, the team have helped 151 people reach safety. However thousands of others remain in hiding.
David France said leaving the underground pipeline for the final time was emotional. He knew he couldn’t return once his documentary became public knowledge.
“I wept with gratitude for the work they are doing,” he said.
“And for the opportunity they gave me to witness bravery of the most unvarnished kind: selfless, humane, and entirely queer.”
This Saturday afternoon (October 17), Welcome to Chechnya is screening in South Australia at the Palace Nova Eastend Cinemas.
The screenings are part of the Adelaide Film Festival and this year’s Feast Festival, which begins next month.
After the screening, Planet Ally is also hosting a free panel with online guest Russian and international activists. It’s at the Tandanya National Aboriginal Cultural Institute in Adelaide.
Find out more and view the full Feast Festival lineup at the website here.
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