January 11, 2021 – This documentary shows the horror of what happens when the power of society, customs and religion are all focused on eliminating a certain segment of the population. In this case, the people being hunted down, tortured and killed are homosexuals and the country is Chechnya, with the support of Russia.
Filmmaker David France (“How to Survive a Plague”) who has been involved in gay rights issues before, embedded himself in a Moscow group (an operation of the Russian LGBT Network) working to rescue gay people in order to make this film. Islam is the predominant religion in the Republic of Chechnya.
This film uses groundbreaking technology in order to put a human face on the story. Rather than the usual face-blurring methods, this film uses new visual effects techniques to seamlessly replace the faces of people in danger with new faces in order to hide their identities. It is a remarkably unobtrusive new way to achieve this goal.
Among those rescued in the film are entire families under threat because of government pressure for them to reveal the hiding places of a gay family member. Whole families lose their possessions, homes, livelihoods, friends and their countries simply for refusing to betray gay family members to Chechen authorities.
The most prominent people in the film are Chechen singer Zelim Bakaev (seen only in file footage) who disappeared in 2017. Bakaev is believed to have been abducted and murdered because he was gay. The other prominent person in the film is Maxim Lapunov, who publicly seeks an investigation into these Chechen crimes, but his efforts are summarily rebuffed by Russian authorities.
Dramatic episodes in the film involve the transport of refugees from Chechnya and Russia to other countries, including Canada (the U.S. refuses to grant asylum to these refugees). However, life is perilous for these refugees. One man in a Moscow safe house attempts suicide. A gay woman is shown being murdered by a member of her own family in another video. Such murders are sometimes called “honor killings.” There have been honor killings in the United States in recent years. Often it is women who are killed by family members, sometimes because they are dating men of races or religions that are unacceptable to the family.
A woman named Anya who was rescued from Chechnya, grows weary of being isolated for six months waiting for her legal status to be cleared up. She is warned not to leave the safe house. Anya suddenly disappears, and is not heard from again, rescuers fear she was captured by authorities and perhaps killed for being gay.
These episodes of liberation from Chechnya are often bittersweet, since those who successfully flee are often cut off from their homes, belongings, jobs, families, and sometimes even their native languages. Those who escape speak of their fear of being captured, and perhaps being on the run and in hiding for years.
According to the documentary, the purge against gays in Chechnya began with a routine drug raid. The police found explicit gay pictures in a man's phone captured in the raid. The man was tortured to get the names of his gay friends. His friends were, in turn captured and tortured, and so on. From there, the violence spread to the whole country.
The close relationship between Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and Vladimir Putin is discussed in the film. There are clips from a televised interview with Kadyrov who is clearly uncomfortable being asked about the anti-gay purges in Chechnya. He claims there is no purge, and even claims there are no gay men in Chechnya. Similar denials have been made by other leaders in other countries, including Maylaysia and Iran.
This is a daring, groundbreaking and powerful documentary that dramatically illustrates human rights abuses in Chechnya and Russia. It is not just about the evil that people do to each other in the name of fear, but it also highlights the courage and compassion of those who seek to fight that same evil. This film rates a B+.
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