I couldn’t look away from this gripping documentary about the awful abuse and murder of LGBT+ people in Chechnya. What at first seems a story about gay people, becomes something much more universal where we can see the awful ripple effects of persecution, the terrible cost and how easy it is to become a refugee.
The documentary, directed by David France, begins with an explanation that the faces of those trying to flee have been digitised to disguise their identities. At first it is hard to see but you soon begin to realise that some of the faces have a hazy quality, like an Insta filter has smoothed out their features. It is a clever technique, called ‘deepfake’, as it ensures we feel connected with the expressions and individuality of each person but their other-worldliness keeps reminding us that these people are in constant danger.
The story is woven around three people; David Isteev, the crisis response coordinator for the Russian LGBT+ Network, Olga Baranova, the director of the Moscow Centre for LGBT+ Initiatives, and ‘Grisha’, a gay Russian man who has escaped Chechnya after being detained and tortured. What emerges is a relentless campaign by Chechen state police and the population to eradicate the ‘shameful’ existence of LGBT+ people in their country.
As we have seen with the USA, what often creates mass persecution is a leader who either encourages it or won’t acknowledge it is happening. For Chechnya it is both and Putin-favourite Ramzan Kadyrov has all the smug and malignant narcissism of Donald Trump. When asked by foreign journalists about the torture and murder of gay people in his country, he denies that any such people exist but that they are also evil and slandering his fine nation. You can see that any person who might be gay, accused of being gay, be related to someone who might be gay or just want to support human rights is not safe.
We are given so many compelling examples, from video footage of beatings, rape, torture and murder to news reports of a celebrity pop singer, Zelim Bakaev who disappears without trace. Most affecting is the story of Grisha, who not only flees but then organises for his boyfriend, ‘Bogdan’, to escape. Then, as Grisha’s family receive death threats, he arranges for them all to flee, including his mother, sister and nieces and nephews. The look on his sister’s face, as we are told that she has had to leave her husband behind, says so much about the collateral damage of persecution.
We learn that the situation is different depending on your gender. Gay men are arrested, detained, tortured and killed. Lesbians are often ‘taken care of’ by their families, which means held captive and beaten behind closed doors or killed to save the family from shame. It is much harder for people like David and Olga to help lesbian women as they have little ability to leave their homes and, as Olga says when the consequences of helping one women ‘Anya’ puts her safety at risk, helping a woman to flee is like stealing someone’s property.
A poignant moment is when Grisha agrees to lodge a formal complaint with the Russian criminal court, the only person willing to take such a risk, and at the press conference where his name is revealed, the deepfake mask slowly disintegrates to reveal his real face. You can’t help but understand what a risky move this is. We have seen the real tension as tireless workers like David and Olga race to extricate people within hours of being contacted. Even fleeing to Russia is not a guarantee of safety and we see Grisha and his family shift countries multiple times, trying to stay a step ahead of Chechen secret police.
You can’t help but reflect on how easy it is to be made a refugee. How you can have a comfortable life, family and job and then have to leave everything behind to save your own life and those you love. Watching the difficulty Grisha and Bogdan have in adjusting to a life in a country where they don’t speak the language and have no provenance, makes you question what you might sacrifice for love.
Running through these compelling stories is the understanding of the toll it takes on those few who sacrifice everything to try and help. Sometimes the toll is too high but, as David says with the gallows humour you might have to adopt to cope with such tragedy, “If they don’t kill you, you’re a winner.”
We are left with a coda of how many people have been helped to flee; many have resettled in Canada, none in Trump’s USA. It underlines that this issue of abuse, persecution and undermining of basic human rights is not isolated to Chechnya.
Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.