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Review: 'Welcome To Chechnya"

It worries me that what we call the news has become so narrowly focused in recent years.

Entire cable news operations routinely report on one or two major stories on a daily ongoing basis, largely ignoring other important developments happening around the globe that are deserving of attention.

Technologically, we have become the Global Village that Marshall McLuhan wrote about back in the Sixties.

With the proliferation and ever expanding capability of communication satellites we have long had the ability to cover anything that happens anywhere in the world, in real time. Curiously, we often choose not to.

Right now there are three major stories that dominate the news: the current occupant of the White House, the coronavirus pandemic and the massive sweep of the Black Lives Matter protests. Other stories and issues simply fall by the wayside.

Case in point, the shocking subject matter of the new HBO documentary film Welcome to Chechnya.

It details the valiant efforts of a group of activists in Chechnya risking their lives fighting for the rights of the oppressed LGBTQ community. Chances are you’ve never heard anything about it.

It’s not merely about a struggle for recognition or acceptance, in this instance it’s quite literally a matter of life and death.

The film opens with a dramatic telephone conversation.

A young woman named Anya tells one of the activists that her uncle has found out about her sexual orientation and that if she refuses to have sex with him, he has threatened to tell her father, who is a government official.

The bluntness of the revelation is stunning.

In Chechnya, gay members of society are so despised and reviled that when they are discovered, they are routinely beaten and tortured.

The torture is brutal. They are sometimes electrocuted.

Other times, grotesque forms of medieval punishment are applied.

One victim describes having a rat placed on his back underneath a metal pot that was heated until the rat tried to bite and claw his way through the man’s body.

It’s the kind of stuff that you hoped only existed in the realm of Grade-B horror films or the sadistic genre of torture porn.

When the victims are eventually returned to their families, we learn that the families are encouraged by the local authorities to quietly and discretely kill them.

It’s a dire situation occurring in a national climate of violence and rage.

Through it all a small, dedicated group activists working with some international suport struggle to get these targeted individuals out of the country before it’s too late.

Welcome to Chechnya follows several of these the harrowing stories in dramatic detail.

The intensity and suspense rivals any of the Mission Impossible movies, with the exception that in this case it’s all terrifyingly and unimaginably real.

The footage is remarkable.

It is raw and unsparing, captured with hidden camera that record with first-person clarity and impact.

You wonder, moment by moment how any of this could ever have been clandestinely shot under such tight surveillance in such an oppressive environment.

You also wonder about identities of the activists who appear throughout this documentary and the serious consequences facing them if they were able to be identified.

It occurs to you that their lives are endangered as well.

In the introduction of the film, we learn that digital alteration techniques were utilized to prevent that from happening in order to protect the team of volunteers from the brutal local authorities.

There is a palpable chaotic energy in this cinema verite-style documentary that is very reminiscent of the Cops TV series.

What separates it from that is that the stakes are much, much higher.

In some ways, you could consider Welcome to Chechnya to be a horror movie.

What it shares with Hollywood horror movies is the ability to shock you and terrify you.

The difference here is that when you walk out of a horror movie, you can remind yourself that none of it was real.

The content here—the shocking images and disturbing personal accounts – cannot be as easily dismissed.

It’s a deeply troubling scenario.

Even after being successfully extracted from Chechnya and sent to an undisclosed, temporarily safe location, months can be spent in prison-like solitary confinement while details of a final permanent home are worked out.

During that time, many ponder what life will be like even after they have been relocated.

While they will have new identities and a chance of freedom, they realize that they will no longer be able to speak their native language again or ever speak to their families, friends or relatives without jeopardizing their fragile safety and security.

It’s a hard bargain. And there are no guarantees.

This grim predicament is a growing reality for those living in countries like Chechnya that vilify, torture and kill marginalized members of their society.

It’s not the kind of story that ends up on the nightly news.

Instead, it’s one of those nasty reminders that man’s inhumanity to man continues, unabated, unchecked, and officially unacknowledged, in certain dark alleyways of our Global Village.


Welcome to Chechnya premieres on HBO June 30.

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