Welcome to Chechnya (2020): Film Review
One of the most important parts of documentaries, and one of my favorite parts of the genre itself, is that it is the boldest of film genres. Within a documentary, stories can be explored in a raw and unfiltered form, something that few narrative movies can do and do effectively. That fact itself is what makes documentaries so haunting at times: everything is real. This isn't like a superhero film where you can walk away knowing that things like what you just saw wouldn't happen in real life, this is real life itself, which adds a sort of nuance, and sometimes horror. to documentaries when they are done well. This profoundly affecting sense of documentary filmmaking is quite present in the Sundance hit and HBO film Welcome To Chechnya, where in each scene, viewers learn and hear about the persecution of LGBTQ+ people in the southern Russian region of Chechnya, and through footage and interviews, are reminded every minute just how horrifying the situation truly is. And through the eyes of the activists that the film is centered around, the documentary shows just how extensive and important this fight is, a fight that most people might not even know about.
As stated above, this 107 minute documentary centers itself around the persecution and torture of LGBTQ+ Chechens, specifically in how this is propelled within the Chechen government (including the Russian leader Ramzan Kadyrov with slight mentions of the national-level government as well at times), how this group of Chechens try to live their lives in a culture that fights against them, and how a group of activists in Russia work to free LGBTQ+ Chechens from the oppressive society that they live in. While the film spends most of its time following the activists, the jaded balance of these three sub-parts work to make this film extremely affecting, with themes that extend far outside of Chechnya and Russia as a whole. The film does an excellent job highlighting that while what we are seeing on screen is the fight in Russia, this is all of our fights, no matter who we are and where we are.
One of the most profound quotations in the film comes from a close relative to one of the documentary's main subjects, who tells the camera (in so many words) that "it's not the country, it is the people - the people who got power and abused it." Once those words are said, it's nearly impossible to see Welcome to Chechnya in the same lens, because of how much the documentary emphasizes these universal messages, from the moment the movie starts to when the credits finish rolling. Abuse of power, and persecution of people, can happen anywhere - it's not defined only to Chechnya, not only defined to Russia, it is everywhere. It really comes down to recognizing when this abuse is happening, pinpointing where it lies in the cultural forefront, and working to fight against it, like the activists in this film.
But the film goes even farther than that - at various points of the film, when the stories of various LGBTQ+ Chechens and their fight to escape Chechnya and Russia is at the center of the screen, the film does a great job showing and highlighting the countries that let these refugees in - whether revealing the name of the country or not, for safety reasons of the individuals fleeing. At the end of the film, one of the pre-credit cards discusses how the activists have united most of the groups fighting for LGBTQ+ rights around the world, and how this is a global fight. Right before the credits start rolling, the film ends with a bombshell of sorts, a title card explaining how the Trump Administration has refused to let in any LGBTQ+ Chechen Refugees. This is incredibly important to the message the film relays during its runtime because it stresses a theme that is so prevalent throughout the movie again and again: this is a global fight, and to create a better society for these people and everyone else, we have to build bridges instead of walls. We have to recognize when something is wrong, and work to fix it, because if we don't, power is just being abused in a different sense.
Welcome to Chechnya is one of the most important films of the year, and is one of those documentaries that will stick with viewers forever. Watching the brave individuals at the center of this documentary reveal their stories, even if they take major safety risks in doing so, helps reaffirm how important this fight is, and how dangerous the situation truly is for the LGBTQ+ people living in Chechnya, and places with similar standings like the region. So, when you're scrolling through the tv listings or browsing through HBO Max in a few weeks from now, seek this film out. Not just because it is a great documentary (which is truly is), but because it is an important film worth seeing - to learn about these issues, to see how global they are, and to understand how we can work to fight back against the oppression, no matter who we are, where we are, or how we do it. It is as simple as that.