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  • Writer's pictureDana Piccoli

"Welcome to Chechnya" is a harrowing real-life story of LGBTQ survivors and activists

Welcome to Chechnya is chilling, there's no other way to put it. Directed by investigative reporter David France, the new documentary out now on HBO is the real-life tale of a number of activists in Russia, and their fight to rescue fleeing LGBTQ Chechens from torture, rape, and death.

For a little background, in 2017, anti-gay purges began in Chechnya, a part of the Russian Federation. While officials deny the allegations that forces were kidnapping, torturing, and killing gay men (lesbians and bisexual women are also at great risk, but too often suffer their fate at the hands of their own families), videos have surfaced that show otherwise. Some of these videos, which are shown in the documentary, are brutal and horrifying and tell a story of a community living in fear. In the film, the viewers follow members of The Russian LGBT Network, which works tirelessly to rescue and relocate survivors, even as they themselves are threatened and targeted. In recent years, Russia itself has rolled back protections for LGBTQ citizens, and it will become evident as you watch that the activists can't count on any assistance or understanding from the authorities.

Activists David Isteev and Olga Baranova are at the crux of this well-made film, and spend much of their time on airplanes or long car rides, trying to get refugees out of Chechnya and on their way to a new life elsewhere. Canada takes in many survivors, as does Europe, but as of now, the United States has granted no amnesty to those who seek it. Olga runs a safe house shelter for survivors, all of who have had their faces digitally replaced with activists from places like NYC to protect their identities. It allows us to see the depth of pain, fear, and relief they are experiencing as they flee for their lives. Many survivors have been tracked by Chechen forces and have disappeared from their safe houses and new lives, so one can understand the abundance of caution. One of these survivors is "Grisha," a gay event planner from Russia who was captured while working in Chechnya. After he was tortured and forces to turn over other gay men, he was released back to Russia. However, soon he was again targeted for knowing too much, and his entire family has to flee the home they've known their whole lives.

Director France was imbedded with the Network for nearly two years and caught many frightening and tense moments on film. One involves a young lesbian named "Anya" who was being sexually blackmailed by a relative and flees with the help of David. Your heart will race through the entire ordeal.

While much of the film deals with very brutal circumstances, there are moments where the survivors and viewers are allowed a ray of hope. According to the Human Rights Watch, the backlash against the LGBTQ community in Chechnya has seen a resurgence, but this time, the survivors are speaking out.

Welcome to Chechnya is available now on HBO.

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