From Academy Award-nominated director David France (How to Survive a Plague, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson) comes Welcome to Chechnya, a powerful and eye-opening documentary about a group of activists risking their lives to confront the ongoing anti-LGBTQ persecution in the repressive and closed Russian republic of Chechnya.
With unfettered access and a commitment to protecting anonymity, this documentary exposes Chechnya’s underreported atrocities while highlighting a group of people who are confronting brutality head-on. The film follows these LGBTQ activists as they work undercover to rescue victims and provide them with safe houses and visa assistance to escape persecution. Welcome to Chechnya is a Public Square Films production, directed by David France and produced by Alice Henty, Joy A. Tomchin, Askold Kurov and David France. With informational support LGBT World Beside.
In Grozny, an attack on the columnist for the Novaya Gazeta Elena Milashin and lawyer Marina Dubrovin, the newspaper reported.
The incident occurred at the entrance to the Continent Hotel on the evening of February 6. The attackers were both men and women. Novaya Gazeta reports that Dubrovina was beaten, and it was mainly women who beat her. The attackers filmed their actions on camera.
According to the publication, Milashina and Dubrovina arrived in Grozny for trial in the case of Islam Nukhanov.
(The Case of Islam Nukhanov Islam Nukhanov in October 2019 posted a video on YouTube in which he talked about an elite village in the center of Grozny, where relatives and close heads of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov live. After that, a criminal case was opened against him under articles on the possession of weapons and the use of violence against a representative of authority. Nukhanov’s relatives claimed that he was tortured after being detained.)
Filmmaker David France deployed pioneering VFX in order to disguise subjects whose lives were threatened by a hostile homophobic culture.
One key role that documentarians play is to bring back into clear view stories that have, for whatever reason, vanished from the headlines. World premiering on January 26 in the Sundance FIlm Festival’s Documentary Competition, the HBO Documentary FIlm “Welcome to Chechnya” is a chilling docu-thriller that exposes a humanitarian crisis that demands to be brought back into the public eye.
Back in early 2017, Oscar nominee David France (“How To Survive A Plague”) read some horrific articles about the largely Muslim Russian federal republic of Chechnya’s crackdown on homosexuals, who were hunted, imprisoned, tortured and even killed. “There was press and pressure in Europe,” he said in a telephone interview. “In the States we were distracted by Washington. Our news attention has become very shallow and the story drifted out of headlines quickly.”
Without a global response to save gays whose lives were threatened in their home country, “I learned that the queer community in Russia had pulled together… to get people out of Chechnya to safety,” said France, “not to Russia. They had to get people out of the country. They managed to put into effect a vast underground railroad, like a French Resistance in World War II, rescuing and saving people.”
France started filming in August 2017, looking for characters to provide a spine for his movie among many remarkable stories of gay Chechens who “not only found safety in this underground network, but found comfort in their new countries,” said France, “and began to understand and embrace their lives as LGBTQ people, something they had no model for back in Chechnya. The idea of a gay sensibility, of a community, was anathema to them initially. To be brought into this incredibly tender and protective world was really eye-opening to them.”
Eventually, France focused on two stories of those fleeing from Chechnya as well as two of their rescuers. He found one man just as he was entering the system, trying to reunite with his boyfriend and his family, who was considering taking legal action against the people hunting him around the globe.
But France had to solve one serious issue with filming this unfolding narrative. “I was not the first person to go in as a reporter to try and tell that story,” he said. “What I and all the other reporters found were people running away who were too frightened to allow their stories be told. They knew it was not enough to get away. This isn’t a campaign to send into exile queer Chechens. This is an ethnic cleansing of a sort. This is an effort to liquidate LGBTQ Chechens, as a way to cleanse the blood of the Chechen people. Even should they arrive in the West in Paris or Toronto or Berlin, if it were known they were still alive, they would be pursued. They are living constantly in the shadows, and only allow people to film them in the shadows.”
Alex Gibney and other filmmakers have hired actors to speak the words of subjects they want to protect. And others have sat in darkened rooms with their voices disguised. France wanted to show his subjects’ faces as they recounted what they had been through, from fear of being hunted to capture and imprisonment and torture. “I promised them I would disguise them,” France said.
And so the director dove into a six-month R & D period, trying multiple approaches. He reviewed the ways to preserve their facial reactions, from rotoscoping and animation to filtering and overlaying systems. Some would not render his subjects sufficiently disguised, “or made them caricatures of themselves that would allow people who knew them well to recognize them,” he said. “I did not want to stylize them to the point of limiting the humanity they presented. I didn’t want to interpret through an artist’s pen. I wanted to find it and hold it, the highest standard of disguise, so even their mother won’t know who they are.”
France wanted to avoid having the VFX disconcert the viewer. “I worried about the audience’s ability to accept the disguise and not be distracted by it,” said France, who finally sought help from an expert in the Uncanny Valley, a professor at Dartmouth who specializes in human connectedness and runs an empathy lab. He asked her “to find the approach that be the most engaging and least disruptive.” She enrolled a formal scientific study using her institutional review board.
The winner, the approach that scored the best — identical to an undisguised face — was face replacement. This technique had never been used in a film before. “It is an inversion of deep fake technology used by journalists to manipulate images,” said France, like online video of Barack Obama calling for nuclear genocide, the technology that imposes a library image of a well-known person to map over somebody saying outrageous things. France asked 22 people — mostly queer activists in New York — to lend their faces as a physical shield to protect the people in the film.
The filmmakers brought the real people into a green-screen environment where VFX technicians ingested their faces and replicated the lighting circumstances of the subjects captured in the field. The VFX artists reduced their faces to an algorithm, then mapped them with deep-machine learning over the subjects in the film. “While all eye and mouth movement and facial tics belong to the original subject,” said France, “they are all being carried out beneath the skin of these volunteers. This could allow us to know their stories; it’s still them. We see the weight on their faces. It comes through, it’s unmanipulated, were picking up those expressions.”
France is grateful that “the activists lent their faces, which has given [the persecuted Chechens] the ability to tell their story. They were given the voice and a face that isn’t theirs to tell a story that is exclusively theirs. I wanted the face doubling to be part of the editorial narrative of the story, that they are so deeply afraid and thoroughly pursued that they have to hide their faces.”
Some voices were changed; some like Grisha (pictured above) were not. The technique works; the subjects who have new faces do have a slight halo framing them, which France wanted, to show that they needed the disguise. “I wanted you to feel the danger that that represented to their lives,” said France. “The differences between those being hunted and those who were helping them.”
The most upsetting scenes in the movie are trophy videos posted by Chechen perpetrators that celebrate violence against gay men and women. In order to show them, France also digitally altered these images — in one case, replacing one visage with his own face. “I couldn’t ask any of the activists to do that,” he said. The gut-wrenching sound of one man being raped was unaltered. “These were pieces of evidence gathered by the activists through their networks and interceptions, through people who have served as whistleblowers to get to the activists. It’s the proof of what is going on on the ground.”
At one dramatic moment in the movie, one person’s face is finally revealed. After years of secrecy, France showed the film to 40 of his cast and crew last week. “I heard the gasp when the mask comes off,” he said. “When I met him I didn’t know [he would go public with his story], and he didn’t know, so I was able to watch him wrestle with that. He elected to have the film unmask him in a way that will give him a greater level of protection and publicity. It’s going to be undeniable what he’s doing, risking his own life for this humanitarian undertaking.”
His rescuers are not disguised. Which proved to be a problem. At one heart-stopping juncture, Russian activist Olga felt such desperation “about this threatened girl who was coming through that airport someplace and being brought back into perilous dangers,” said France, “that Olga determined it was essential do something to try and find her. That entailed giving up personal data about herself that put her in danger.”
This forced Olga to leave the country with her young son. However, her heroic cohort David, based in St. Petersburg, is still commandeering the daring rescue work, flying in and out of Chechnya at great risk. “David was and is in imminent danger,” said France. “Two of the people are in the film were uncovered, and have also discovered how endangered they are. They are making their way out of the country.”
France hopes that the film will “shock the story back into the headlines,” he said. “The first thing is getting traction again in the media, not just in the U.S. but throughout the world. The activists on the ground need that exposure in order to continue their work. Also for their own security, they need to be known to the world to give themselves protection. I am hoping people will step up to support their work. I’m hoping the film will generate the political will, in capitals across the West, for making humanitarian parole visas available to the organizations on the ground to help people get out of there. Without official partnerships with governments around the world, they can’t find safe homes for the people they’re rescuing.”
Making the film was not without its dangers for France and his crack director of photography, dissident Russian filmmaker Askold Kurov, who had to sneak in and out of safe houses without giving the secret locations away. “We had no sound department,” said France. “We shot on a little Sony tourist 4K camera with a shotgun mic and one wireless lav that could be thrown into a bag, held under an arm, and with an iPhone 10.” The camera had a Bluetooth feature that allowed it to be manipulated and monitored by cel phone. “In public, Askold would hold the camera under his arm like a rolled-up newspaper and bury his nose in the cel phone as though he were looking at texts, and move his body to position the camera.”
As for bringing the Chechen perpetrators of these homophobic crimes to justice, that is still to be determined. One case has exhausted its appeals in the Russian domestic courts; charges against Russia should now be moved into European human rights courts.
HBO Documentary Film acquired rights to the film as the filmmakers were in the finishing stages of the expensive VFX work. After the Sundance world premiere, the movie will air on HBO in June.
Aminat Lorsanova stated that she had been subjected to violence in Grozny by close relatives and a specialist in “expelling genies” invited by them. The girl who left Russia with the help of the LGBT network demanded that the Investigative Committee start an investigation.
As the “Caucasian Knot” wrote, in September 2019, representatives of public organizations noted that in Chechen society the tendency to condemn dissent is intensifying, exacerbating women’s social injustice and the problem of domestic violence. According to activists, the number of complaints from victims of domestic violence in Chechnya, Dagestan and Karachay-Cherkessia is growing every year.
Chechnya is characterized by persecution based on sexual orientation. If homosexual men are persecuted by security forces, the fate of lesbians and transgender women is entirely in the hands of their relatives, who are no less cruel.
Lorsanova seeks criminal prosecution of his family.
22-year-old Aminat Lorsanova claims that in 2018 she was twice forcibly placed in psychiatric hospitals in Grozny. In one of the clinics, she spent 25 days, in the other four months. Several times during this time, a friend of the girl’s relatives came to her hospital, where he beat him with a stick while reading the Koran. He explained that in this way he expels a genie from her, according to a statement filed by the investigation on January 20.
“He beat me with a stick in the solar plexus, lifted a T-shirt on me, and pressed his fingers into this area, going down, also lowering the skirt to the hips, and pressed his fingers there. All this happened under my cry from hellish pain and his prayer cries in my right ear. “Close relatives” calmly watched the process, and even when I called for help and asked them to stop, they did nothing, “Aminat Lorsanova said in a statement.
According to her, at the end of 2018, one of her relatives forcibly tranquilized her at least six times. ” handcuffed me in my arms and tied my legs with tape, and glued my mouth too. He told me that he would tie me up like a sheep and treat me like an animal. After that, the forcibly gave me an injection of chlorpromazine and put him to bed, without even untying my legs – he left in that position, with his hands and feet tied, to sleep facing the wall, “said Lorsanova.
In April 2019, the girl left Chechnya.
Djinn expelled from LGBT people throughout the North Caucasus.
The practice of “expelling genies” from representatives of the LGBT community is widespread not only in Chechnya, but also in Chechen families living outside the republic.
“If a person’s behavior does not comply with the neo-traditionalist morality universally propagated in Chechnya, it is declared that genies have taken possession of such a person. The expulsion of genies in Chechnya is used not only in the form of alternative medicine, but also through quasi-medical centers such as the Clinic of Border States.
Violence, which is used against LGBT people in an attempt to “cure” them, remains one of the most relevant in Russia, despite the fact that homosexuality was no longer considered a disease more than 30 years ago, said Natalia Poplevskaya, coordinator of the monitoring and international advocacy program of the Russian LGBT network.
“Due to misconceptions about sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI), lesbians, homosexual, bisexual and transgender people become victims of harassment, corrective rape and violence from friends and relatives who are cruelly trying to“ correct ”SOGI and achieve heteronormative behavior, “she told the Caucasian Knot correspondent.
The exclusion of homosexuality from the international classification of diseases does not stop various clinics, as well as adherents of alternative medical approaches that promise to transform and “normalize” people’s sexual preferences, Poplevskaya said. She added that such “treatment” often injures the patient.
“In Russia, the practice of such methods of treatment for homosexuality has become widespread in Dagestan, Chechnya, Kabardino-Balkaria and Ingushetia, where cultural and religious centers and centers of Islamic alternative medicine are located. They are mainly trying to cure homosexual women by” expelling the genie ” “The branches of these centers and other similar institutions can be found even in the central part of Russia,” said Natalya Poplevskaya.
On the websites of the Investigative Committee of Russia and the Directorate of the Investigative Committee for Chechnya by 12.56 Moscow time on January 21 there was no information about the initiation of a criminal case on the application of Lorsanova.
Ramzan Kadyrov rules the Caucasus republic through fear and oppression, amid reports of torture. But those seeking asylum in Europe are not safe, as assassins hunt them down.
Zelimkhan Khangoshvili spent a long time living on the edge. He survived several years of partisan warfare against Russian forces in Chechnya.
“I think he felt much safer here. He was only thinking about building a bright future in Germany, also for the children, not about fighting or going back there,” said Manana Tsatieva, Khangoshvili’s ex-wife, who lives in Germany with their four children.
But it was here, in the centre of Europe, that Khangoshvili finally met his end. Late last month, shortly after leaving home to go to the mosque, a man approached him in Berlin’s Kleiner Tiergarten and shot him twice in the head. He died immediately.
The suspected assassin, who was held by police soon after he was spotted tossing a wig and a gun into the river, has so far maintained his silence. He was travelling on a Russian passport apparently issued under a false identity, boosting suspicions about a hit ordered by Russian security services or by the Kremlin-backed leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov.
Whoever ordered the hit, the killing has once again underlined the perilous position of thousands of Chechens in Europe, fearing retribution from home but unable to win asylum. Germany had rejected a request for asylum for Khangoshvili and his family, and ignored a request to give him protection because of threats on his life.
Khangoshvili was the latest in a trail of killings over the past decade in which insurgency figures and other enemies of Kadyrov have been shot dead, wherever they may be hiding.
In 2009, Kadyrov’s former bodyguard Umar Israilov, who had publicly stated he had been personally tortured by Kadyrov, was shot dead in Vienna. The same year, a political rival to Kadyrov, Sulim Yamadayev, was shot dead in Dubai. Local police accused a Chechen politician close to Kadyrov of supplying the murder weapon. There have been half a dozen prominent Chechens killed in Istanbul over the past decade, with Turkish authorities believing Russian security services are involved. And in Ukraine, where Chechens have joined volunteer battalions fighting pro-Russian forces, the Chechen fighter Amina Okuyeva was killed in an ambush of her car in 2017. Her husband and battalion commander, Adam Osmayev, was wounded but survived. Previously, the pair had been targeted by a Chechen hitman pretending to be a French journalist from Le Monde who had come to interview them.
Chechnya under Kadyrov has become one of the world’s most sinister human rights blackspots. The son of a former independence fighter who switched sides, Kadyrov has used Russian cash to rebuild the republic from the ruins of war and has been given a free hand to rule as he pleases in return for pledging allegiance to Vladimir Putin. In recent years, his security forces have carried out extrajudicial round-ups of a wide array of groups, including suspected militants, government critics, those deemed to have the wrong kind of beard or those who are suspected of being gay. There is widespread testimony of his forces using torture.
Unlike Khangoshvili, the majority of recent Chechen arrivals in Europe have had nothing to do with the former insurgency, and are instead those who have fled threats and torture, leaving their homes as a last resort. But just like Khangoshvili, most of these people struggle to secure asylum, amid increasing hostility to migration in western Europe – especially Muslim migration.
In Germany, Poland and other EU countries, several thousand Chechens are in legal limbo and risk deportation back to Russia, despite having what should be textbook asylum claims: victims of torture with credible threats against their lives and their families. Having made the arduous journey to western Europe, they are often dismissed as economic migrants or potential radical Islamists and told to go back home.
For many Chechen refugees, their ordeal begins in Brest, a Belarussian town close to the border with Poland. This is the closest that Chechens, who usually hold Russian passports, can get to the EU without a visa. Each morning a train leaves Brest on the short ride to the Polish border, usually with around 200 Chechens on board. They are obliged to travel in a separate carriage from other passengers.
At the border, Polish guards pick no more than one family a day whom they allow to place an asylum claim; the rest are simply sent back on the same train. Earlier this summer a Chechen man cut his veins at the border in desperation: his reward was a stamp in his passport automatically disbarring him from any further attempts, said Enira Bronitskaya, a Belarusian rights activist.
Ayub Abumuslimov and his family spent five months living in a cold, damp apartment in Brest, taking the train several times a week in the hope of being selected for asylum. Abumuslimov fled Chechnya after the disappearance of his brother Apti from the town of Shali in January 2017. Apti was kidnapped, along with a neighbour, and taken to the local police station. He was never seen again. Many other people disappeared at the same time, and Apti featured in a list of 27 people published by the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta as potential victims of an extrajudicial execution by local law enforcement.
The problems for the rest of the family started when they began writing complaints about what had happened. In June 2017, Abumuslimov said, his car was stopped by men in plain clothes and he was bundled into the back of another car. He was taken to an undisclosed location, where he was held and tortured for more than two months.
Abumuslimov described simple beatings, as well as more sinister treatment, including electric shocks. The worst, he said, was salt torture, where his hands and legs were cuffed and large quantities of salt were poured into his mouth. When he was on the point of choking, he would be given water to drink, causing extreme pain as the salt passed through his body.
“They wanted me to sign a form saying my brother was fighting in Syria and we had no complaints about law enforcement. I refused,” he said. His tormentors wore official police uniforms, though all but two of them were in masks. He was released after more than two months.
It is not possible to verify the details of Abumuslimov’s claims of torture, but they tally with an overwhelming number of similar stories from Chechens unfortunate enough to find themselves in the hands of Kadyrov’s security forces. Maria Książak, a psychologist who is now treating Abumuslimov, said: “He displays all the signs of someone who has been through serious trauma.”
After his release, Abumuslimov and his extended family fled Chechnya for Brest, with the aim of making it to western Europe. It took them five months and 40 train journeys before Polish border guards finally allowed them to file an asylum claim. But even in Poland, he was not safe.
While Polish authorities processed their claim in the town of Biala Podlaska, Abumuslimov gave a media interview about the family’s plight. Shortly afterwards, as he was leaving a supermarket in the town, a car drove up with three people inside. They tried to drag him into the back seat but he fought back, dropped his shopping and ran.
“A couple of days later I was called from a Russian number and a Chechen voice said, ‘You thought we won’t find you in Poland? We’ll find you anywhere.’ ” The family fled to Germany, where they lodged a new asylum claim, but have so far been rejected due to the regulation that asylum seekers must apply in the “first safe country”, which German authorities deem to be Poland.
There are many Chechens with similar stories who do not speak publicly for fear of reprisals against their families back in Chechnya, but Abumuslimov said he and his family want to go public because they refuse to be intimidated, and want to get justice for Apti. They are also launching a case against Russia at the European Court of Human Rights.
“The most unbelievable violations occur on a daily basis in Chechnya, it is by far the worst place in Europe for rights abuses, but because Kadyrov silences the victims of violence, we get a lot of information and evidence that we can’t use, because if we do the whole family will be targeted,” said Russian rights activist Ekaterina Sokirianskaya.
The case of Tumso Abdurakhmanov provides a rare documented insight into the way Kadyrov’s regime threatens Chechens in Europe. Abdurakhmanov was working for a telecommunications company in Grozny, Chechnya when he says he was apprehended as a suspected radical due to his long beard. Authorities insisted he had gone to fight in Syria, a claim he says is false. He fled to Georgia and eventually to Poland, where he started a video blog denouncing Kadyrov’s regime. His YouTube videos got thousands of hits, and soon he received a phone call from Magomed Daudov, Kadyrov’s right-hand man, widely known in Chechnya by his nickname, Lord. Abdurakhmanov recorded the call and posted the recording online.
Aware that Abdurakhmanov was abroad and had a large following, Lord did not immediately resort to threats. Instead, he promised they could discuss issues openly, and cajoled him into returning to Chechnya to help Kadyrov, whom Lord called the “padishah” or “emperor”.
As he failed to make headway, Lord got angrier, demanding to know Abdurakhmanov’s address in Poland. He later publicly declared “blood revenge” on the blogger. Later, Abdurakhmanov’s family back in Chechnya were filmed at the village mosque denouncing their relative, in footage that was posted online. “If they want to, let them kill him or do what they want with him. We have been gathered here today to announce that we no longer accept responsibility for him,” said one of his relatives, in a recording Abdurakhmanov believes was made under duress.
“I know they’re hunting for me. They’re searching for me, so of course I am taking measures to protect myself,” said Abdurakhmanov on a Skype call from an undisclosed location in Poland. Polish authorities have accepted there is a threat to his life in Russia, and have granted asylum to his wife and three children. But they have rejected his claim on national security grounds. The evidence that motivated the decision is classified.
“I can’t defend myself from the accusations because I don’t know what I’m being accused of. I have not been questioned at all; there has not been a single discussion with the authorities,” he said, declining to give his location, except to say he was moving frequently. He said he was now in hiding both from Chechen assassins and from Polish authorities, certain that if they detain him and deport him to Russia, he will be killed.
It appears possible that European asylum authorities are relying on Russian accusations of terrorist leanings when denying asylum applications. It is true that in recent years, hundreds of Chechens became radicalised, with some joining Islamic State and even taking senior positions in the group. It is also true that Chechen and Russian authorities have used accusations of radical Islamism as a pretext to arrest or torture people.
“It is a very complicated situation, but we end up with cases of people who very clearly need asylum and are being rejected,” said Sokirianskaya.
Tsatieva, ex-wife of Khangoshvili, hopes that his murder may finally prompt German authorities to positively assess her asylum claim and those of her children. “It’s a very difficult time for me and the children. We are afraid of what may happen next, and there is still no decision regarding our asylum in Germany.”
Książak, who has treated Chechen and other victims of torture for more than two decades, said removing the threat of deportation from traumatised refugees was the best way to help them recover and integrate. “When protection to torture survivors is finally granted, the fears that haunted them slowly dissolve. Trust and family relations improve and social integration follows. But if they live in constant fear it is very hard for them to recover.”
Chechnya’s troubled history. Chechnya’s history over the past three decades has been both tragic and tangled, as the original fight for independence from Russia in the 1990s fragmented.
When Vladimir Putin first came to power in Russia in 1999, he launched the second Chechen war with a ruthless air campaign. Russia won back control of the region but at a terrible human cost.
The Kremlin put Akhmad Kadyrov, a rebel who switched sides, in charge of the region. After he was killed in 2004, his son Ramzan took over and has run Chechnya ever since, rebuilding the region with Moscow’s roubles and given free rein to establish a legal grey zone where his word is law and a cult of personality has flourished.
The insurgency split, with those in favour of a secular independent Chechnya mostly moving to Europe and the remaining rebels becoming more Islamist and using terrorist methods. By 2007, Chechen fighters had rebranded their movement as a “Caucasus emirate”, seeking to adopt sharia law across the whole region and later allying with Islamic State. Kadyrov has used this to paint all opposition to him as radical Islamist.
As the years have gone by, his security forces have acted with ever more impunity against his real and perceived enemies.
Grozny today is unrecognisable from the devastated shell of a city left after the two wars: shiny new high-rises are lit with neon and the central thoroughfare is called Putin Avenue. Portraits of Kadyrov and his slain father adorn many buildings, and a parade of western celebrities have visited and professed their admiration for Kadyrov. But behind the façade, an atmosphere of fear prevails.