THE STORY – Activists risk their lives to confront Russian leader Ramzan Kadyrov and his government-directed campaign to detain, torture and execute LGBTQ Chechens.
THE CAST – Olga Baranova, David Isteev & Ramzan Kadyrov
THE TEAM – David France (Director/Writer) & Tyler H. Walk (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 107 Minutes
By Josh Parham
It is a sad state of affairs when one sees the landscape of unbelievable atrocities committed in this world. The sense of heartache can be overwhelming when one considers the dark chapters in history that have found the exploitation of human suffering at the center of attention. In many instances, these events are politically motivated, making the horrific hardships even more difficult to witness. Such moments in time must be given a harsh spotlight to uncover such cruel practices in an effort to end the torment and help the victims. As with many real-life circumstances, documentaries are an excellent resource in this endeavor. “Welcome to Chechnya” looks to do just that, and its results are innovative and captivating.
The subject of this story is the horrifying crackdown of the LGBTQ+ community in Chechnya. Over the past few years, there has been a movement to capture, torture and even kill many of these individuals in the country. This is seen as a directive from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who influences the Chechnyan president Ramzan Kadyrov, as a means to gain even more power and control over the citizens. What is happening is tantamount to genocide, and it has led civil rights activists to mobilize and help get people relocated to other parts of the world. It’s daunting and dangerous work but necessary in an effort to bring relief into these shattered lives and reveal to the world the true extent of such evils.
Director David France seems to have a specialty of stories that focus on this community, or at the very least an invested interest. His previous films “How to Survive a Plague” and “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson” also looked into the plights of ostracized groups who were combatting an oppressive government force. While the setting may have changed to a more international focus, the harrowing depictions remain just as engaging. The balance between the macro-political perspective with the more intimate personal stories is well-executed, giving the full context of what these people are going through and the sense of urgency felt in their desperate situations. For the most part, the filmmaking is fairly straightforward, but France crafts a compelling portrait that includes tense scenes where the extraction plots are enacted and tender moments of intimacy. The important work is given a deserved highlight, and it’s impossible not to be in awe of that.
Even though the premise is quite effective at creating a provocative story, there are occasions when the structure leaves more to be desired. The initial setup looks at a variety of people who are entering and leaving a designated shelter. While all of them are worthy of exploration, their narratives are scattered and disconnected. This ends up limiting the emotional connections made to them, and in turn, those conclusions end abruptly in an unsatisfactory way. It doesn’t take away from the real threats these people face, but the storytelling makes it difficult to fully invest their arcs. The film eventually settles on one man, given the alias Grisha, to follow more closely as he eventually plays a more important role. It’s welcomed but also signals how the rest is lacking in terms of fulfilling emotional journeys.
Still, there is another fascinating element at play here, and that is the use of technology. Obviously, the identities of those fleeing must be kept secret, and one could imagine that a sea of blurry faces could become visually overbearing. Instead, the film uses facial alterations that conceal any identification while also maintaining an actual face that can project every emotion that person would show. The effect is more impressive on some than others, but there is a unique detail to the work that is remarkable in all cases. These are not simple deep fakes, after all. This process gives the illusion of a human face that is distorted just enough to not lose the soulfulness conveyed. It works on a deeply personal level, particularly felt in a powerful reveal towards the end. The visual effects are not intended to be seamless, but they further underline the danger surrounding this community and the disturbing climate they must suffer through in anonymity.
“Welcome to Chechnya” can be a frustrating watch at times if only because one wishes it would have streamlined its narrative. All of the stories are valuable in their own light, but sharing the stage in a limited scope means that so much feels unanswered and unfulfilled. At the same time, the resiliency of those who are braving this battle and fighting to inform the world of such horrors is miraculous to behold. The core truths being spoken have a strong impression, further underlined by the notable and particular visual effects. There is no doubt that this is an era of history that needs to be uncovered further and discussed even more. It is obvious from the film that more work is needed, but the light shown here is crucial for any change to occur. There’s plenty of evidence presented to advocate for it to arrive strongly.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – A harrowing and devastating exploration into a disturbing atrocity that is conveyed through powerful emotions and impressive visual effects. The balance in showcasing the large-scale politics with the intimately personal details is well executed.
THE BAD – The scattered narratives often makes the investment in the many characters limiting, leaving too many conclusions feeling abrupt and underwhelming.