In Moscow is a top – secret shelter for people fleeing the Chechen Republic of the Russian Federation.
In their home country, they would be in constant danger of death. The Chechen regime considers them their enemies. Many have already been imprisoned, beaten and tortured before fleeing.
The Russian authorities do not know about the shelter. The leading dictator in Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov is supported by the Kremlin. Those fleeing are chased and cannot leave the refuge for a moment. The ultimate goal of everyone is to get completely out of Russia, as a refugee in different countries that agree to receive them.
Are these people perhaps rebellious guerrillas, separatists opposed to Kadyrov’s regime?
No: they just belong to sexual minorities. That is why they have had to flee their homeland at the risk of their lives.
This ongoing human rights crime is being reported David Francen directed by a startling documentary Welcome to Chechnya (“Welcome to Chechnya”). The film is part of the program of the Love & Anarchy festival starting today, Thursday.
Sexual minorities the situation in Chechnya has been poor for a long time. The majority of the population is Sunni Muslims, and with the takeover of Kadyrov in 2011, the country has become a dictatorship with partial sharia law.
In early 2017, information began to seep into the media about widespread, systematic persecution of homosexuals in Chechnya.
In the same spring, the Russian opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta published news that more than a hundred Chechens suspected of being homosexual had been arrested in Chechnya and had been held illegally and beaten.
At that time, three victims had died, according to the newspaper. There were probably more dead, as they may have also had to be killed by their own relatives.
The Chechen authorities denied allegations of persecution. Accurate data and eyewitness observations were difficult to obtain from the closed country.
News it was still widely read. So did David France, a former long-time journalist and current documentary director, in early 2017.
“I read a story in The New Yorker about a Russian‘ underground ’lgbtq organization trying to help persecuted homosexuals in Chechnya – it had to be done because the Russian government did nothing and other countries were rarely silent on the matter,” he says by phone from his home in New York.
“I thought this thing needs more attention. I got in touch with the activists of the organization, and in the summer of 2017 I was already in Russia. I spent the next 18 months in a network of shelters run by activists making a film. ”
In the summer of 2017, Ramzan Kadyrov, known for his macho image and harsh speeches, was seen in a rare TV interview on HBO. Supplier Bryant Gumbel asked him directly about the alleged persecution of homosexuals. Kadyrov denied the matter with a contemptuous laugh.
Instead, he claimed, there are no homosexuals in Chechnya at all.
“If there is, take them even to Canada. In the name of God, take them far from us so that our blood will be cleansed, ”he said. (An excerpt from the interview will be seen Welcome to Chechnya.)
At the same time at the time, France saw the real edge of the matter.
In interviews in shelters, young men who fled Chechnya, for example, tell how they have been beaten and tortured with electricity in prison. Traces appear. One traumatized victim attempted suicide in a shelter.
Those who beat and kill homosexuals in Chechnya are not necessarily the authorities. They may be family members, relatives, or other ordinary citizens who have been infested with hatred, under the guise of religion and the “traditions” that Kadyrov exalted.
“I used to like Chechnya a lot,” one fugitive says in an interview.
“Ordinary people were great, friendly and helpful. When the ‘cleansing’ of gays began, it was a shock. I couldn’t understand how these kind people could treat others so violently, so cruelly. ”
The film sees evidence of this in the form of footage captured by activists in the hands of cell phone videos and security cameras. The most shocking of these is how relatives drag a woman out of her car and apparently kill her in the middle of the road.
In the documentary the identities of the victims of persecution interviewed have been carefully protected. Their faces have been subsequently modified to be unrecognizable by an artificial intelligence application.
In practice, other faces have been digitally added over their faces, but the original facial expressions are still visible. The technique is the same as in the so-called deepfake videos. Assisted by a company that makes visual effects for films. It is known that nothing similar has been done in any previous documentary.
“I wanted to tell the story of the victims’ story so that their feelings would be conveyed to the viewers: covering their faces, but not their humanity, ”France says.
“In this way, their identities were protected, but still the joy, sorrow, even small micro-faces of the face were visible. I think we created a whole new tool here to help documentarians. ”
Lead roles in addition to the victims, there are Russian LGBTQ activists who are doing constant, hard and dangerous work without any help from the authorities. These include, for example, those appearing in the film with their real names and faces Olga Baranova and David Istejev.
“They work like agents. And without any training for that. They’ve learned their lessons from agent films at most, ”France says.
France itself prepared the document with the help of security professionals. He had created a complex cover story for himself.
It was also needed. According to France, the most dangerous moment of the filming process was experienced in Chechnya.
She was there with activists rescuing “Anya,” a woman in her twenties who had been in danger of death because of her sexual orientation.
At the beginning of the film, you hear Anya telling her situation over the phone to David Istejeville: Anya’s uncle is trying to blackmail her by threatening to reveal Anya’s orientation to her father. The father is a high-ranking official in Chechnya. He would kill Anyan if he found out.
Rescue operation during the Chechen authorities stopped France and activists at the border. “When they found passistani that I am an American, it raised doubts in them. I was arrested and interrogated, ”France says.
France used his cover-up story that he was a fan of the Egyptian football team.
At the time of the operation, the 2018 FIFA World Cup had been held in Russia and the Egyptian team had arrived in the country via Chechnya.
“According to my story, I followed the route the team took because I was so obsessed with fans. I was such a rich and eccentric American tourist. The activists, on the other hand, were, according to the story, Moscow-type guys who I had hired at a good price for my guides and interpreters. ”
Cover story went through, but the situation was frightening, according to France. For himself, however, he did not fear, but activists and refugees.
“I would have been beaten in the worst case scenario and then I would have been sent back to the United States. But for them, the consequences would have been much more serious. ”
Even those who fled the persecution in the Moscow shelter were not completely safe. The Chechen authorities are actively looking for them all over Russia, France says.
“There were times when we literally sat quietly inside the mouse in the dark listening to what was heard from behind the window. We were afraid many times that someone had found out where we were. ”
HBO produced by Welcome to Chechnya got its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. The film then had time to be screened at the Berlin Film Festival before the coronavirus canceled the rest of the festival screenings in the spring. The film premiered in the United States at the end of June.
The reception has been commendable overall. It may have already had a political impact. Last July, for example, the U.S. government condemned for the first time Ramzan Kadyrov’s human rights abuses against sexual minorities. The Minister of Foreign Affairs issued an opinion on the matter Mike Pompeo.
But, as stated at the end of the film, the United States has so far not granted asylum to any of those who fled Chechnya. Some of the victims of persecution seen in the documentary have disappeared and their fate is unknown. Probably the “cleansing” continues in Chechnya.
The position of sexual minorities has declined recently around the world. It is not, for example, the reason for gay persecution that Chechnya is a Muslim country. Kadyrov uses religion and “traditions” as one of the grounds for his incitement to hatred. The populist leaders of different countries do the same in Brazil, Hungary, Poland, Russia.
“I hope journalists and documentary filmmakers will continue to raise these issues. In a way that doesn’t stay at the level of just magazine headlines. It has an impact, ”France says.
“At Welcome to Chechnya, I wanted to say, ‘I was witnessing this happening, and now you’re witnessing it too – now do something.'”
Still already making the film aroused hope in France, despite all the upheavals he witnessed. Hope was given, for example, by activists whose selfless work has saved numerous lives.
“It reminds me in a very fundamental way about how big ordinary people can do.”
Welcome to Chechnya will be performed at the Love & Anarchy Festival in Helsinki. Show times and locations can be found at the event website.
Love & Anarchy September 17-27
■ Love & Anarchy will be held for the 33rd time this year.
■ The repertoire includes about 140 feature films and over 170 short films. The software can be found online at hiff.fi.
■ This year, the festival reached the goal of equality, to which it committed itself as part of the international film industry’s 5050×2020 initiative. 51% of R&A films are directed by a woman or a person of the opposite sex.