Courtesy of the Schwarzman Center

On March 17, the Schwarzman Center opened its screening of an award-winning film called “Welcome to Chechnya.” 

“Welcome to Chechnya” is a documentary by filmmaker David France. It follows the systematic killings of gay individuals in the late 2010s in the Russian republic of Chechnya and the group of activists who risked their lives to aid LGBTQ refugees in escaping the country.

The film will be available to view until Wednesday, March 24, when a Zoom panel will take place at 7:30 p.m. The screening and panel are co-hosted by The Humanities, Arts and Public Health Practice at Yale Initiative, or HAPPY, and the Yale School of Public Health. They are HAPPY’s inaugural events.

“This movie grabs you and holds you,” said Karen Deary, senior administrative assistant at the Yale School of Public Health. “You are horrified and enlightened; it’s phenomenal.” 

The panel will feature a broad range of experts — including Neal Baer, the documentary’s executive director; Lyosha Gorschkov, Co-President of Russian-Speaking American LGBTQI and Deirdre Stradone, co-deputy director of Sanctuary for Families’ Immigration Intervention Project — who will each discuss a social aspect related to the film. Baer said the panel will answer questions the film raises about legal and psychological challenges that refugees face, data on HIV infections in Chechnya and the technology used to conceal refugees’ faces.

“From our perspective, this is a great opportunity to engage what is an important, timely issue and bring it to a group discussion from these complementary perspectives,” said Judith Lichtman, head of HAPPY, department chair and Susan Dwight Bliss professor of Epidemiology.  

Lichtman and Baer, who are both involved with HAPPY, said that the screening and panel represent the initiative’s holistic approach to public health crises. By being cross-disciplinary, the initiative can approach problems from various angles and hopes to highlight pertinent public health issues — both nationally and globally — through expressions of art, Lichtman said.

According to Baer, members also hope to use HAPPY to bridge the steps between “action and inaction” by giving individuals the opportunity  to make tangible changes based on scientific reasoning.

Baer previously worked as a physician, public health advocate and screenwriter for shows such as “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” and “Designated Survivor.” He became involved in the documentary because of its relevance to him as a pediatrician and gay man.

Baer noted that the genocide in Chechnya was both government sanctioned and involved killings within the familial unit. According to Baer, officials told families to kill their gay children and siblings “for honor.”

“This story has to be told,” Baer said.

For the film, Baer utilized facial mapping technology to mask individuals’ faces to protect the identities of refugees. Although most people featured have now fled from Chechnya, the government has issued a recommendation to the Chechnyan diaspora to “take care” of these refugees, according to Baer. Even though the refugees’ safety is the filmmakers’ primary concern, the facial masking technology allowed the filmmakers to tell the refugees’ story in a manner that was still “emotionally gripping,” Baer said.

After viewing the film and panel, participants will be directed to Baer’s website, where individuals can access resources to help the refugees. Baer said this project was inspired after comments by viewers of “Law and Order: SVU,” who were moved by the show to help those suffering in similar situations.

Lichtman said the documentary “embodies the human story,” as it encompasses several aspects of society: public health, social justice, legal issues and individuals and their happiness.

The HAPPY Initiative was founded in 2019.

Maia Decker | maia.decker@yale.edu