WELCOME TO CHECHNYA – movie review

WELCOME TO CHECHNYA

HBO Documentary FilmsReviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: David France
Writers: David France, Tyler H. Walk,inspired by the New Yorker article “Forbidden Lives: The Gay Men Who Fled Chechnya’s Purge” by Masha Gessen
Cast: Olga Baranova, David Isteev, Maxim Lapunov
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/15/20
Opens: June 30, 2020

Welcome to Chechnya.jpeg

On June 15, 2020 the U.S. Supreme issued a decision that gays people are protected by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The law prohibited discrimination on account of gender. It should be obvious that gays and lesbians are covered. Yet three justices disagreed and look what Trump said: “This is a landmark decision that should be praised throughout the land.” Oops. He did not say that. He said that he would live with the decision. Awfully sporting of him, but of course he has to cater to his base, many of whom might be happier living in Tehran or Kabul or Sanaa. Now we learn that it’s not only in the heart of the Muslim world that gays are not tolerated by their governments but also in Valdimir Putin’s Russia. Putin is no friend of the LGBTQ community but folks who are closeted in Moscow and St. Petersburg have a fighting chance of experiencing love without state interference. Still, in the “Republic” of Chechnya, a predominantly Muslim entity whose officials have made peace with Moscow after attempts to secede, the big enemy is…people who are sexually involved with members of their own gender.

To learn more about this, we need only watch HBO’s bold, fly-on-the-wall coverage of the way homosexuals are intimidated in Grozny and outskirts. No, not intimidated. Killed in some cases. By whom? Maybe by police, but also by their own mothers, fathers, brothers and cousins. It’s a free-for-all where stone-cold bigots claim that their “honor” has been shamed by their kin who are not altogether like them, to such an extent that family members can kill them and authorities will do nothing to punish the killers or torturers.

Director David France, whose “How to Survive a Plague” deals with ACT UP’s successful battle to get needed drugs to people afflicted with AIDS, takes on the political battle of gays in Chechnya to avoid such treatment in police stations as having their fingers entwined with cords to deliver electric shocks should the hapless victims not come up with names of others in the gay community. One person gives up ten, the ten give up another ten, and soon the folks with authority in Chechnya will create a republic whose residents have, “pure blood.”

Obviously this will remind you of the treatment of Jews in Germany, of Rohingyas in Myanmar, of Indians in America, of Tutsis in Rwanda, or Aborigines in Australia, Maoris in New Zealand, to cite a few cases, you’re ready to understand the abnormal psychology of people who cannot tolerate those who are not quite like them. Never mind that all of these people are minding their own business, not rebelling against their governments.

The inspiration for this powerful doc is Masha Gessen’s article in the New Yorker magazine on July 3, 2017 which features prose like “They pushed my head down so I wouldn’t see where we were going,” Ali, who is around thirty years old, told me. “Soon, the car pulled up to an unmarked building. Ali saw two men he knew standing in front, their faces swollen from beatings.” The article names Ramzan Kadyrov who runs Chechnya as though it were his own country (he’s backed by Putin), and who claims that his aim is to cleans the country of gay men. At the same time he makes the absurd comment that “We don’t have any gays.”

The heroes of France’s documentary, which is mostly in Russian with easy-to-read English subtitles, are David Isteev and Olga Baranova. They run a shelter in Moscow that might make you think of Harriet Tubman’s havens for runaway slaves, transporting them to Canada which, by the way, is the country to which many of Chechnya’s gays want to go given that Canada is fairly liberal in granting asylum. One such person is Grisha who went to Chechnya to conduct business there as an event planner when he was picked up and tortured, ultimately heading to Moscow. His troubles were not over since his entire family became the target of threats. All had to be transported out.

Lesbians are not exempt from the reactionary rules of the Chechnya’s government. Anya, just twenty-one years old, has her sexual orientation discovered by her uncle. He threatens to tell her high-ranking father, but wait! He is good enough to allow her to go free if she would have sex with him. Isn’t it great to have pure morals? She complains to her rescue people of claustrophobia, staying in her room for three months and told not to go out even to dump her trash. She bolts, and nobody knows her whereabouts today.

As with his previous films including “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson” about that gay rights activist’s mysterious death, David France highlights the heroism of radicals who risk life and limb to move victimized people to locations where they can carry on with their lives without the abhorrent notions of government and family. The heroic guys and gals in this emotionally raw picture have special praise for Canada, which has granted scores of humanitarian visas to people hounded despite minding their own business.

Bulletin: Trump has not authorized a single visa for these victims. Surprise!
106 minutes. © 2020 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – A-
Overall – A-

LES MISERABLES – MOVIE REVIEW

LES MISÉRABLE
Amazon Studios
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Ladj Ly
Screenwriter: Ladj Ly, Giordano Gederlini, Alexis Manenti
Cast: Damien Bonnard, Alexis Manenti, Djibril Zonga, Issa Perica, Al-Hassan Ly, Steve Tientcheu
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 10/24/19
Opens: January 10, 2020

Les misérables (2019)

Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables” is to the French what Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” is to the Russians: its most celebrated classic novel. In the opening pages, Hugo tells of Jean Valjean, who broke into a bakery, stole a loaf of bread, and is sentenced to 19 years’ hard labor. What does the author want us to take away from the French sense of justice? That the theft of bread is indeed a crime deserving of punishment. More important, that the severe sentence imposed by the court is way out of line, a rank injustice. What is gained by such hard-nosed attitudes toward a member of French society? In most cases (though not in Valjean’s), you are turning out hardened people whose later criminality will result in offenses far greater than that of the theft of bread. In other words, the society is far more at fault than the individual.

This is the principal idea conveyed by Mali-born director (and sometimes actor) Ladj Ly, who co-wrote the new “Les Misérables” with Giordano Gederlini and Alexis Manenti. France has been unable to assimilate Muslims and other poor immigrants and their children to their society whereas America has for the most part succeeded in doing so here. Determined to rid Paris and other “civilized” towns and cities of these desperately poor people, the French government settled them in banlieues, in this case the director’s own suburb of Montfermeil, also a setting in the classic novel by Hugo. Montfermeil is not a suburb as you may think of an area outside a large city, but instead is one inhabited by jobless people on the dole, having little chance of getting employment or of moving to the City of Lights. Such a ‘burb is a powder keg, and in director Ly’s freshman full-length feature, the neighborhood explodes. The people living here would not likely be prone to violence and even anarchy had they grown up in Paris or Lyon or Bordeaux. As Ly develops the story based on his short film of the same name, it took little more overly aggressive cops to light the fuse. You will leave the theater noting the obvious comparisons to those incidents in the U.S. in which some cops, called racists by some who oppose their actions, have shot unarmed African-Americans without just cause.

Cramming a boatload of stories into a single episode taking place in just one day, Ly hones in Montfermeil where Issa (Issa Perica), a fifteen-year-old boy, has stolen an adorable lion cub from a circus whose tents are in town. A trio of plainclothes cops get on the case. As you watch officers Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djibril Zonga) go after the perp with a vengeance, the third member of the force, just transferred Stéphane (Damien Bonnard), serves as the moral center, doing his best to tone down his partners. Stéphane looks like a fish out of water, serving a dog-eat-dog community featuring a group of radicalized Muslims trying to push its version of Sharia law on the folks; another of gypsies running the traveling circus; and a third, a bunch of rowdy teens who have playing soccer but get their real kicks trashing the police.

The opening scene is terrific. A huge crowd has formed on the Champs Élysées cheering the victorious team that had just taken the World Cup. Surprisingly the youngsters are draped in the French tricolors, making us think that they are as patriotic as Charles DeGaulle. After that celebration, any semblance of unity falls apart. The gypsies under Zorro (Raymond Lopez) want their lion back. The self-styled crime boss called The Mayor (Steve Tientcheu) grapples with the radicalized Muslims, one of whom notes that the Koran in effect forbids human beings from living with lions under captivity, feeding them when the glorious beasts would have no problem in the forest feeding themselves.

When chaos breaks out, Gwanda hits chief troublemaker and lion thief Issa with a shot of a flash-ball gun, signaling full-scale rebellion. Of the police, only Stéphan keeps his ideals, using his limited influence in calming the communities. But nowadays you’d be hard-pressed to keep any mayhem private, as the area’s nerdish Buzz (Al-Hassan Ly) has captured the illegal police action with a camera affixed to his hobby drone. Getting the memory card back becomes the principal concern of the police.

If you crave action, you’ve got that particularly in the final segment of the film, the kids acting as though they think this is a real police riot they are provoking rather than realizing that they are in a film. The fight scene, as it were, is deliciously choreographed under Julien Poupard’s lenses. The film serves not only as pure entertainment but as a veritable sociology lesson on life in a community an hour removed from the Arc d’Triomphe but which might as well be on the moon. With a sound track from Pink Noise and some breathtaking photos including the flight of a drone, “Les Misérables” gives us a heightened sense of how society can alienate not only a group despised by so many in their country but also a police force made increasingly callous by its experiences.

108 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – B+
Technical – A-
Overall – B+