Monday, 29 June 2020

DOC/FEST 2020 - WELCOME TO CHECHNYA review

Like most of the major film festivals this year, with Covid-19 making the possibility of an in-cinema festival impossible (for the moment), this year's Sheffield Doc/Fest has pivoted online instead. What they've come up with is really rather impressive, with a number of in-demand titles now on-demand on the new Doc/Fest Selects streaming platform that has been launched. Available now until July 10th with various pricing options depending on how many films you're hoping to see, it's worth taking a closer look.

One of the titles I've managed to catch so far is David France's follow up to How to Survive a Plague and The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, Welcome to Chechnya. At a time when civil liberties for the LGBTQ+ community are in danger across the world, Chechnya is a place to look at to see how bad it could become if people aren't willing to take a stand. The film features some collected CCTV and other footage of truly horrific acts of violence against gay, lesbian and transgender Chechens, who since a regime change in 2017 are kidnapped, tortured and forced to reveal others by those who don't want them as part of their society. One of the primary instigators of these practices is allegedly the current head of the republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, who in an interview with an American reporter, scoffs at the idea that homosexuality even exists in Chechnya, and laughs at the accusations of barbaric treatment towards some of his citizens.

Thankfully he is not the focus of the film, instead France's camera follows a group of activists lead by David Isteev and Olga Baranova, who are sought out by at risk citizens in the hope they can find a way to get them out of the country, and to safety. One such person is teenager 'Anya', whose uncle is trying to blackmail her into having sex with him or else he will reveal her homosexuality to her father, a high ranking official who Anya fears will have her killed. The preparation and execution of the highly secretive plan to move Anya to somewhere safe (a title card helpfully states "somewhere in Eurasia") is the centre point for the film, and is a tense, terrifying piece of documentary filmmaking. If they were to be caught by the authorities, Anya, the activists and the people behind the camera (often collected as spy footage) would be in grave danger, and this is something the filmmakers have taken into account for anyone still at risk by using an incredible piece of digital technology to protect their anonymity.

Whereas in years past you might expect subjects reticent about revealing their identities on camera to only appear on screen via a silhouetted interview, or perhaps a dramatic re-enactment, or possibly with their faces either pixellated or black-barred to hide their most distinguishing features that would make them identifiable. Here, using a technique I personally have never seen used this way before, the filmmakers have captured the raw footage of their subjects and closest relatives going about their day to day lives, like collecting people from the airport, smoking, talking to each other, etc, and have used a "digital disguise" in the post-production process to super-impose a different face over the top of those at risk. A disclaimer at the start of the film warns you of this necessary process, but it's a startling, uncanny thing to see in use, as the other main focus of the film, 'Grisha', seeks the help of David and his team to move his entire family out of Chechnya, all now at risk because of his open sexuality.

A drawback of such a startlingly effective technique is that you can't help but closely scan the face of every new person we encounter, looking for tell tale signs that the face we are seeing is not their own, such as the slight blurring of the edges that appear when people stand in profile and the face "phases" slightly, like the Scramble Suit in Richard Linklater's sci-fi film, A Scanner Darkly. I was completely happy to accept the face we see as their own, but as new people appear and we see a new face, this detective work did prove to be a distraction. However, I do say this after one single exposure to the process in this film, and fully anticipate seeing this method used in the future where it becomes a commonplace and less of an issue, provided it can side-step association with Deep Fake videos. It's clear that there's no fakery in the story here, and I commend the filmmakers for taking such a bold leap in presenting these people's stories as truthfully as possible. Is the face we see theirs? No. But their words and actions are genuine, as is confirmed in a glorious reveal towards the end of the film, and therefore is worth the sacrifice.

Technical marvels aside, this is a story about the victims of these atrocities, and the people willing to put their own lives on the line to help them get to a safe house whilst they try to find asylum to live freely in a country willing to take them (since 2017, often Canada, but so far never Trump's America). The film shows the urgency for action to be taken, but with so many lives at risk, there are so few who are willing to go public and tell of their treatment, and it's easy to see why. Welcome to Chechnya is a tough watch at times, with violence, rape and an interrupted suicide attempt by one of the safe house residents, all caught on camera. This is undoubtedly an important film, both as an introduction to the digital disguising that will hopefully allow other oppressed people to tell their stories, and in telling the story of the brave activists who hope to bring an end to this truly dark chapter in Chechnya's history. Utterly engaging but truly horrifying.

Verdict
5/5

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