By Peder Heiberg Sverdrup
David France’s documentary about the murder and persecution of LGBTQ+ people in the Russian republic of Chechenya is a tense and harrowing story about hatred in modern day Russia. The brilliant film follows a group of young Russian activists working to “extract” LGBTQ+ people from the republic and bring them to Moscow or abroad in an effort to save their lives.
The film is necessarily hard to watch, but it tells a story of how ingenuity, courage, and kindness can be found in the most unlikely of places. The film introduces people like “Anya”, the daughter of a senior official based in Grozny, who is forced to flee the city in the fear of being sexually abused and beaten to death by her family for being a lesbian woman. Another man named Grisha, tells the story of how he was abused and had his life threatened in a Grozny prison before he made it to Moscow.
In their Moscow safe house, the Russian LGBTQ+ network houses several young people who have fled their home in Chechnya with the help of a friendly network of young activists. Director David France uses digital face manipulation and pseudonyms to protect the identities of the residents and other people shown in the film. It is artfully executed and it does not distract the viewer.
The film provokes seething anger towards Russian leaders, Ramzan Kadyrov and Vladimir Putin. The film shows a clip of Kadyrov laughing when asked about the anti-gay purges in his republic and shows him denying the very existence of gay people in Chechnya. The Kremlin has consistently denied the purges as well.
The viewer, on the other hand, cannot deny them. The film displays the harrowing reality in a grim light, from humiliations and beatings, to torture and murder. It shows the truth of the purges and the Kremlin’s complicity in them. What the film also shows is the bravery of the activists and the people they help. It shows the tremendous amount of self-sacrifice involved in allowing people to be themselves.
The film can be streamed on HBO.