One of the most violence-riven places in the world over the past three decades is the small Caucasian Muslim region of Chechnya. When the Soviet Union split into its many constituent parts in 1991, Chechnya, after centuries of suffering under Russian and Soviet rule, decided to declare independence. And it got to enjoy its statehood for a couple of years, before the newly formed Russian state sent in the military. Over the course of the next decade-plus, two separate independence wars raged within Chechnya between Chechen nationalists and the Russian government. The second of these wars took on a more sinister and internationalist flavor, occurring simultaneously with the US invasion of Afghanistan and the US Global War on Terror. Finally, to create peace and to allow the foreign “jihadists” to move on to fighting in Iraq, Chechnya settled for something short of independence. Today, it exists as an autonomous republic within the broader Russian Federation. It is both free and not free to make its own policies.

Here is the thing about generations of brutal, internecine violence—and make no mistake: the two Chechen wars were among the most savage ever fought, with carpet bombing, torture and the taking and murdering of hostages being everyday events—such fighting leaves a scar. The men who took over post-war Chechnya were hardened, bloodthirsty veterans; only the most callous could rise to political power in such a place. Everyone was touched by the war, so most Chechens around today were combatants, lost loved ones and/or have seen people die violently right before their eyes. It is the residue of a multi-generational war. Violence remains after the peace accords are signed.

This is the Chechnya in which the new documentary Welcome to Chechnya is set: a rebuilding society with a deep memory of brutal violence. The documentary traces the genocidal policies of the Chechen government against the region’s LGBTQ population. Gay men, in particular, have been singled out by authorities. The standard practice is for police to arrest gay men (and some women, too), torture them to confess the names of others “like them” and then release them to their families, with the expectation that the families will murder their “subhuman” progeny. There are various reasons for this policy, none of which are touched on by Welcome to Chechnya, because the film is more interested in the personal stories of the LGBTQ population than it is the politics of what is happening.

In that vein, Welcome to Chechnya follows a handful of survivors who have escaped Chechnya and are seeking asylum abroad (most make it to Canada; because Chechens are Muslim, Trump has blocked any from coming to the US). These escapees are aided by a couple of brave Muscovites who help smuggle them out of the Caucasus and into various safehouses around Moscow, feed them and advocate to the international community for both funding and entry visas. The film focuses on the primary safehouse and on a few of the survivors trying to flee abroad. It is harrowing, affecting and conveys the gravity of the situation in sharp detail.

As a piece of filmmaking, Welcome to Chechnya is also something of a technical achievement. To maintain the anonymity of the fleeing Chechens, the film uses digital face-swapping technology. The viewer is seeing a real human face—rather than the traditional grainy blur—but it is not the face of the individuals seeking asylum. The mouth moves when they speak, but it is not them. It begins as jarring, becomes natural and then leads to a tremendous visual payoff in the film’s third act. Rarely does a documentary have a climax that is cinematographic, but this one does and it is really something!

If there is one criticism that is fair to level against Welcome to Chechnya, it is about its narrow scope and political incuriosity. On one level, it does not matter why the Chechen government is brutalizing its LGBTQ community, but on another level, it is fundamental. This documentary does not really address the issue at all. It is solely concentrated on the precarious, threatened lives of the survivors and the heroic acts of those working to save them. It does this very well and should be considered a must-see film.

Summary
Concentrates on the precarious, threatened lives of the survivors and the heroic acts of those working to save them. Welcome to Chechnya does this very well and should be considered a must-see film.
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