David France’s Welcome to Chechnya follows a network of activists as they try to get LGBTQ+ individuals out of Russia in the midst of what the press, in its brief outrage over the affair, called the “gay purge.” The documentary focuses on the region of Chechnya, the epicenter of the violence where anyone suspected of being queer seems to be at risk of getting tortured with clubs or electrodes, and forced to snitch on fellow queers, by either the police or their own families in a sort of nationalistic honor-killing delirium.
Throughout, France’s camera is a self-effacing and peripatetic presence, as some of the targets of the violence flee to Canada or “somewhere in Eurasia,” even if it means they must stay indoors for months on end until they’re granted asylum. But not, we’re told, by the United States, which has rejected any and all asylum requests emerging from the situation.
All routes of flight go through a secret bunker somewhere in Chechnya, where victims are briefly holed up until activists make the appropriate arrangements for their escape. The shelter suggests a kind of post-nightmare anteroom to freedom, or so one hopes. It’s as safe a space one can forge for oneself in hell, where queer people get to bond with, or simply hug and kiss, people like themselves for the first time in their lives. For some, this heterotopia can be strengthening—even in literal terms, as we see an activist at one point break a smartphone in half with her bare hands to efface the traces of someone’s whereabouts. But for others, the protection the shelter represents is too precarious, the memories and prospects too frightful, to prevent suicide attempts. And when one such attempt is in progress, those running the place can’t even call an ambulance for fear of disclosing their location.
Welcome to Chechnya can at times feel like an odd composite of a raw humanitarian undertaking punctuated by either unnecessary surveillance videos of homophobic attacks or overtly slick talking-head testimonials recorded inside a sterile studio, a very different type of heterotopia to that of the shelter. The suspenseful music can also feel out of place, or maybe just redundant, as the human drama is overwhelming and sufficiently immersive without it. (Madeleine Sackler’s Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus, though set in a different region and portraying a different sort of queerness, the lethal crackdown on experimental theater artists, is an example of how unvarnished aesthetics in service of capturing unvarnished living can be a more coherent, and even ethical, approach.)
In the end, France’s most remarkable accomplishment emerges from an aesthetic commitment of a very particular kind, as he glazes many of his subjects with the ugliness of an unstable digital mask. Welcome to Chechnya warns us that “people fleeing for their lives have been disguised” for their safety. This disguise consists of a digital alteration of people’s faces with an amalgamation of the faces of various activists, and the effect, so redolent of artist Zach Blas’s “Fag Face” anti-surveillance mask, is nothing short of uncanny. A sole transformation of the digitally altered face of one of the documentary’s subjects, who suddenly unmasks himself to reveal his real identity, is mind-blowing. The “Grishan” we had learned to root for and even love across the film is finally allowed to become Maxim Lapunov again, the only man who dared to lodge an official complaint against the state-sanctioned slaughter.