There are many program and specials airing in this period to acknowledge Pride month. Regrettably, the one that is essential, a must-see, is harrowing in what it depicts and hair-raising in the tension-filled methods with which it was made. It serves as a reminder, mind you, of why pride matters in Canada.
Welcome to Chechnya (Tuesday, 10 p.m., HBO/Crave) is a documentary film about the continuing anti-LGBTQ purge in the Russian republic of Chechnya. You have rarely seen such brutality and hate as it sometimes documents.
First, some notes about this program. Its title appeared recently on a list of “controversial documentaries” compiled by the Hollywood Reporter. The report suggested that streaming services Amazon Prime Video and Netflix were wary of – or “burying” – docs that might anger certain countries or corporations. It cited, among other titles, The Dissident, about Jamal Khashoggi. It is highly critical of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his alleged order of the journalist’s murder. Netflix was interested in acquiring it, but then backed away. Welcome to Chechnya was “nearly acquired” by Netflix too, but dropped “at the eleventh hour.”
Also, note that filmmaker David France made Welcome to Chechnya using an iPhone and GoPro cameras. He posed as a tourist and had one phone to show the authorities and another to film in a clandestine manner. Further, such is the danger posed to those he filmed that some faces and voices were disguised in the editing process, using deepfake technology, to preserve anonymity.
The film opens with a young man on the street, smoking a cigarette and talking on his phone to a young woman. We can hear her explain that her uncle has discovered that she’s a lesbian and demanded sex with her, in return for not informing her family, who will almost certainly kill her. The young man, a response co-ordinator for the underground Russian LGBT Network, is trying to arrange an escape from Chechnya to a safe house in Moscow and eventual deliverance to another country. As we learn, many such victims will escape to Canada.
There are two strands to the doc. First, it is about what is a social-cleansing campaign of terror that’s tacitly backed by Chechnya’s head of state Ramzan Kadyrov. The man, with the full support of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has denied that any gay people exist in Chechnya and says, if there happened to be any, he would want to get rid of them.
As filmmaker France explains it, the official anti-gay sentiments empowered vigilantes to harass, torture and often kill gay men and women they discovered in their communities. Families were encouraged to purge gays and lesbians from the family unit with “honour killings.” Kadyrov has used the phrase “purify our blood.”
The systemic hatred reached a new level in 2017 when a suspect in a drug-running case was found to have gay images on his phone and was tortured to force him to reveal his gay friends and acquaintances. It is now routine for suspected men and women to have their phones searched or submit to torture. Sometimes the beatings and torture are captured on phones or surveillance cameras, and the footage of those homophobic attacks obtained by David France are horrific to watch.
The other strand of the doc is anchored in the safe house in Moscow where the rescued are hidden and prepared, hopefully, for a new life in a new country. There is much talk of what life in Canada might be like, as they wait nervously. Many are mentally frail, having been targeted or beaten already, and your heart breaks for those who are barely coping with the tension.
What you get in Welcome to Chechnya is often a formidably tense, real-life drama. Rescuing people from Chechnya is a genuinely hair-raising and dangerous business. What you don’t get is the complete and satisfying happy ending that you might expect. Yes, Canadians can be proud that this country has since 2017 quietly granted asylum to many LGBTQ Chechens.
But remember, as you watch this galvanizing, disturbing documentary, that this newspaper has reported on the fragility – mental and physical – of those who arrived here, survivors as they are of a brutality that is hardly imaginable.
Finally, this column continues with a regular “stay-at-home-period daily-streaming pick.” Today’s pick is Run (HBO-on-demand/crave). The eight-part series ended not long ago and this column’s initial review, based on early episodes, was laudatory. Thing is, it gets even better as it unfolds. It’s a romance, a mystery, disarmingly oblique and unique. Mostly, it’s two characters stuck in a confined space, and their situations are slowly unpacked. They are Ruby (Merritt Wever) and Billy (Domhnall Gleeson) and you gather they were sweethearts in their late teens. They made an agreement: If, at some point in the future, one texted “RUN” to the other and got the same reply, they would both abandon their lives and meet up, on a train leaving New York’s Grand Central Station. That’s the ignition and they are both now on the run. What happens is impossible to predict and at eight half-hour episodes it’s a wonderfully smart escapist binge-watch.
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