Welcome to Chechnya is a grimly ironic title for a documentary that plays like a chilling undercover thriller. The camerawork is rough and ragged; the sense of menace is palpable.
The movie opens on a dark street in the southern Russian republic of Chechnya, where a man smokes a cigarette and arranges secret meetings and transports by phone. This is David Isteev, a crisis intervention coordinator for the Russian LGBT Network, and he spends his days helping gay and transgender Chechens flee a place where they are no longer safe.
Homosexuality and gender nonconformity have long been frowned upon in Chechen society. But things got much worse in early 2017, when the leader of the republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, a strongman with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, began a violent purge of anyone suspected of being gay or transgender.
It began with a drug raid when police arrested a young man and found sexually explicit images of men on his phone. He was tortured and forced to name those men, who were then also arrested, tortured and forced to name others, setting off a horrific chain reaction. Some of the men were released—with the expectation that their own relatives would kill them, since the stigma of homosexuality runs deep in this ultra-conservative, primarily Muslim society.
The journalist and filmmaker David France was first alerted to this crisis by Masha Gessen's 2017 New Yorker article and decided to make it the subject of his next film. He embedded himself with Isteev and another activist, Olga Baranova, and began filming some of the young people who turned to them for help. For security reasons, these individuals are introduced with aliases, and their circumstances and whereabouts are left deliberately vague.