In 2017, news began to spread that members of the LGBTQ community in the Russian state of Chechnya were being arrested by police and tortured or killed by strangers or relatives because of their sexual orientation. Under the Putin-approved leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya began violating its queer citizens’ rights, with little recourse for justice. Despite efforts to muzzle the news, queer activists and organizations around the world and in Russia, like the Russian LGBT Network, began helping persecuted individuals, their partners and families to escape a country that had turned a blind eye to the death of its people by their neighbors.
With names and identities hidden to keep the subjects safe, France and cinematographers Askold Kurov and Derek Wiesehahn earn unprecedented access to survivors of Chechnya’s targeted persecution. His documentary shows horrifying photographic evidence of torture, and listens intently when a survivor calmly shares his horrifying experience of watching others die or brutalized by police with his shocked boyfriend. Interspersed throughout the documentary are activist-obtained videos showing what’s at stake for those who don’t leave in time: a cruel death at the hands of strangers or worse, their families. The images cut to black before gruesome endings, but the cruelty is unmistakable. Evgueni Galperine and Sacha Galperine score the film with a discordant, uneasy sound, the kind of off-putting rhythm to make a viewer uncomfortable listening as they are watching the horrors unfold.
That’s not to say the deepfake effect isn’t weird. It stands out once you notice the blurry edges of their face or how their features never seem to come into full focus. But the purpose of the deepfake mask is not that it looks so flawless that it suspends your disbelief. It’s so that Chechen officials can’t track down the people who have fled their clutches. At times, the new digital faces may become distracting or the identities and details of their stories may blur along with the subjects’ faces, but the impact of their testimonies remains strong. It allows the subjects of the film to speak as they would to someone in the room with them. We can see the good, the bad, and the difficult side of fleeing for your life from the government. We see one of the Chechen refugees attempt suicide, another one leaves without a trace never to be seen again. It’s a fate that’s even fallen on a Chechen pop star, Zelim Bakaev, who disappeared and has yet to be found. Leaving the country is sometimes just as precarious as leaving the state, as visa issues and isolation do little to raise the refugees’ spirits. The process also affects them mentally and emotionally as they’re losing a shared language, culture, family, friends, their entire lives once they leave.