Welcome to Screen Gems, our weekend dive into queer and queer-adjacent titles of the past that deserve a watch or a re-watch.
The Timely: Welcome to Chechnya
As the stalemate between the Russian army and the freedom fighters of Ukraine continues, we’d like to take a moment here at screen gems to point out something that gets lost in most media coverage: the effect of the invasion on queer people.
Russia, under the autocracy of Vladamir Putin, has a terrifying record when it comes to the persecution of LGBTQ people, in particular, gay men. For a portrait of what Russian control would mean for the queer population of Ukraine, look no further than the neighboring Russian republic of Chechnya.
Filmmaker David France documented the horrors of Putin’s gay purges in his harrowing documentary Welcome to Chechnya. France spent several months traveling in the nation-state, as well as Russia and Eastern Europe, documenting the Rainbow Railroad; that is, an underground network of activists helping LGBTQ people escape to the Western world. The film argues that Putin has specifically targeted the queer community in Russia as a way of consolidating his power and deflecting criticism. Worse, his scapegoating of the community recalls the lowest moments of Stalin’s Great Purge: people endure torture, harassment, and often simply disappear.
Much of the plot of Welcome to Chechnya follows the story of Maxim Lapunov, a Chechen refugee trying to escape the Russian sphere with his boyfriend. France uses digital technology to conceal his face for most of the film. That only adds a layer of intrigue to the proceedings: James Bond and Jason Bourne never had this kind of impact. This movie features a real-life spy story unfolding right before our eyes.
And make no mistake, the stakes are life-and-death. It’s difficult to overstate the risk France and his subjects took in making this film. The director had to pose as a soccer fan to complete his travels. Had anyone discovered his true intentions, he would have faced certain prison time. The queer people he depicts in the film, on the other hand, would likely have faced torture and death. Several moments in the film have a level of suspense rarely seen in the movies. We know France gets out alive, but what about his friends? Try to watch and not hold your breath in places.
Welcome to Chechnya details the true horrors of Putin’s ongoing war on LGBTQ people, perhaps the greatest humanitarian crisis in modern Europe. Behind the new iron curtain, a new Great Purge has begun.
Streams on HBO Max.