Sundance 2020 Review: David France Puts an Unforgettable Face on Anti-Gay Purges in “Welcome to Chechnya”

It has been David France’s great ability over the years to put difficult and often overwhelming subjects within reach for an audience, more than likely cultivated as an extension of his own days as an activist in ACT UP when an end to the days of AIDS being a death sentence couldn’t seem further away and yet the group’s strident illustration of the epidemic led to the action to make the disease more manageable. In cinematic terms, he has done this by bringing the past into the present with remarkable clarity in such films as “How to Survive a Plague” and “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson,” but though he often reminds that history has a way of repeating itself, the inherent assumption that we’re more enlightened now than we were then has provided a small degree of comfort as he documented chilling moments in gay and trans history. No such barrier of time exists to bring such relief in “Welcome to Chechnya,” a devastating documentary chronicling the still-unfolding situation in the republic of Russia where gay men and lesbians have been targeted for torture and murder. However, France still locates something to hold onto in the form of the courageous work of David Isteev, the crisis intervention coordinator for The Russian LGBT Network, and Olga Baranova, the director of the Moscow Community Center for LGBTI+ Initiatives, who have created an escape route out of the country for those who have experienced brutality and fear for their lives.

While the nature of Isteev and Baranova operating a safe house and smuggling people out of Chechnya lends itself to a taut cinematic thriller, the need to protect the anonymity of those being transported would seem to contradict that, except for the genuinely groundbreaking decision that France makes to digitally mask those fleeing Russia. At first, the effect is mildly unsettling for reasons both visual, akin to seeing a young Robert DeNiro in “The Irishman” where there’s slight distortion in the area around the face, and ethical, not as it applies to this film but future use, yet that wears off almost immediately when the narrative takes hold, heading into “The Shelter” where Baranova takes in those in danger for usually two weeks at a time before Isteev steers them to safe harbor through a network of LGBT organizations that’s been built globally.

The situation couldn’t be any more precarious, despite the heightened international scrutiny that accompanied the mysterious disappearance of pop singer Zalim Bakaev, when President Ramzan Zadyrov, whose masculinity emanates from a camouflage wardrobe and his affinity for mixed martial arts and guns, acts with complete impunity, having the mandate of being hand-selected to lead the republic by Vladimir Putin. People come and go from the Shelter, but “Welcome to Chechnya” hones in on two particularly harrowing journeys in the stories of Grisha, a 30-year-old event planner who had traveled to Chechnya for work and ended up being thrown into the back of a car and beaten, and Anya, a 21-year-old who was threatened to be outed to her father, a high-ranking government official, by her uncle unless she consented to have sex with him.

With the digital masks, the film is able to chart the emotional toll the experience takes on the two without the typical obfuscation, and one still marvels even then at how cameras are able to follow their treacherous travels on planes and trains when there clearly is an imminent threat to their survival. But France makes sure the technology that made this possible is something you think about later or not at all as you are on this intense ride and lets the humanity come through, both in the remarkable bravery of those it follows and the equally staggering capacity for cruelty of those who have put them in such a horrific position.

“Welcome to Chechnya” will screen at the Sundance Film Festival on January 27th at 12:30 pm at Redstone Cinema 1 at Park City, January 28th at 6 pm at the Tower Theatre in Salt Lake City, January 30th at 5:30 pm at the MARC Theatre in Park City, and January 31st at 9 am at the Library Center Theatre in Park City.