on Welcome to Chechnya


I recently had someone tell me we would just have to “agree to disagree” after I’d challenged her on some pro-Trump Facebook post. “Agree[ing] to disagree,” as I understand it is a way to say, “I’d like to stay in (some kind of) relationship with you but I’m simply not going to change my mind.” I’m not agreeing to disagree just to be agreeable in times like these. I will no longer pretend to be okay with morally repugnant points of view in the interest of having people like me.  I don’t (as none of us do) know how much of this life I have left to live and I’ll be damned if I’m going to leave it having kept my mouth shut because someone I love didn’t like it.
This is my 14th Sundance Film Festival. The first Sundance I attended I could ill afford to do so. I was living in Southern California but had already gotten orders for Iraq; I knew I was going to war. I thought to myself, “Fuck, if I’m going over there to die and I’ve always wanted to do this thing, why not do it now?” I had some shitty, high-interest rate credit card with nothing on it so I decided I’d let somebody else pay the bill if I died “defending freedom and democracy in the Middle East and worldwide” so I bought a flight from LA to Utah and put down a deposit on a room on the outskirts of town and decided I’d go to my first and possibly last Sundance. I didn’t have one ticket for any screening but I decided to do it anyway. There was no electronic wait list back then; you just had to stand in the actually waitlist line, sometimes in the snow. Indie film is worth it. As it turned out, I only didn’t get into one I wanted to see.

Tonight I saw Welcome to Chechnya directed by David France (How to Survive a Plague, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson). As I told the filmmaker afterwards, I have now sat through almost 200 Sundance movies and I don’t know that I’ve ever felt an audience more motivated to act as after last night’s screening. You could actually smell the anger, sadness, and determination in the theater as the credits rolled.
Welcome to Chechnya tells a story that is ongoing. Embarrassingly, I didn’t know anything about the current “cleanse” going on in Chechnya. (For those of you who don’t know, Chechen Republic is now a “federal subject” of Russia and borders Georgia and Azerbaijan, and is due north of where I was stationed in Iraq.) All I think I knew about Chechnya before seeing this film was hearing the term “Chechen Rebels” on the news in the 1990s. A little Internet research tonight has taught me the Russian-Chechen conflict has been going on since the 18th Century. Currently, Romzan Kadyrov is the Head of the Chechen Republic. His father held the same post and was assassinated in 2004. Five days after being sworn in as President, Romzan Kadyrov appointed his cousin Prime Minister. He also founded Akmahd Fight Club (named for his father). He is a very, very bad dude. Chechnya is a predominantly Islamic region. All the world’s major religions have histories of persecuting homosexuals, Islam, of late seems to be doing particularly bad, an arguable point I acknowledge. The current Kadyrov has a very cozy symbiosis with the Kremlin propped up by propaganda worthy of the old Soviet days. Donald Trump’s praise of Putin makes every American complicit in the crimes of which there are many. Welcome to Chechnya deals specifically with the beating and murders of LGBTQ folk living in and trying to escape the nightmare of oppression they currently experience in Chechnya. I don’t know when I’ve seen a film that kicked me so squarely in the chest.
Activists have dedicated their lives to saving as many as they can. “Safe Houses” are reminiscent of The Underground Railroad and attempt to get these people out and to places who will accept them as political refugees. Notably, The United States under a Trump Presidency (and I do mean under) have accepted exactly zero of these refugees. Tonight I saw footage of a Chechen family demolishing the skull of their lesbian relative with what appeared to be a stone the size of a cinder block. That was hard to see and I’ve seen war.
“Hard to see.” Ha.
My hard isn’t hard at all  das compared to the hard these people are living.

I’ve had well-meaning straight people tell me they were glad they were not born gay because they see how hard it is for us. I know they mean well and I can certainly understand what they mean. Still, it stung a bit. Making like-race comparisons is problematic but sometimes useful to help me understand how something said might feel to someone. If I told a black person that I’m glad I was born white because how shitty it’s historical been for black folk, I can understand how that wouldn’t feel too good to them. Same thing. So although I’m reticent to admit it, I did, at moments throughout the film, have thoughts of “for fuck’s sake I’m glad I wasn’t born in Chechnya.” As my penance for the thought, I promise to do something to help those who were.
How did we end up here? If you’re a citizen of The United States, ask yourself how we ended up with a “president” who is so complicit in these horrible crimes? We are (still yet for a moment) the most powerful nation on Earth. Trump’s praise of Putin and Putin’s praise of Kadyrov is causing the death of queer people; the brutal, torturous death of queer people.
Don’t ever tell me again how you love me while speaking through that grin of self-deception that allows you to support someone like Donald Trump. Don’t congratulate yourself of how “open minded” you are in that your faith tells you that homosexuality is an abomination but you still just “love me so.” It’s all a lie. It’s all a sad and dangerous lie and you are either fighting on the side of right or you are fighting on the side of wrong.
I grew up in a religion that taught that there would be a “Judgment Day,” when each person would be asked to stand before “The Throne of God” and give an account for how he or she had lived their lives. Believe this teaching or not, to participate in it for a moment of a way of contextualizing our lives is not without value, I believe. On such a day, according to this mythology, God will not say ,“All the member of church so-and-so come forth to be judged.” He (or She) will not say, “Let me get all the Republicans over here and the Democrats over there.” In such a situation and if such a God existed, each person would be expected to give an account of how they had lived their lives, the choices they’d made, who’d they’d defended and who they had shunned. I must have misunderstood to teachings as I rode those pews for lo those many years. This looks nothing like what I was being taught to believe.

I hope that you will see this film. At the very least, log on to www.WelcomeToChechnya.com to learn more about the film and about how you can help.
Do what you can to encourage the removal of that Putin-worshipping scumbag currently squatting in the White House. It’s the very least we can do.

(pictured are Maxim Lapunov, David France, Olga Baranova and David Isteev) 

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