A young Russian woman is calling for help. Her uncle has found out that she is lesbian, and unless she has sex with him, he will tell her parents — who will surely kill her.
In remote Chechnya, where persecution of the LGBTQ+ community has long happened but only recently been uncovered, there’s a network of volunteers eager to help shuttle these victims to safety in foreign countries. But when faced with daunting odds, incalculable danger and horrendous instances of loss, the task of even finding those who need help is difficult.
This woman’s journey, among others, is captured in the award-winning 2020 documentary Welcome to Chechnya. And in a March 24 online panel with Yale School of Public Health experts as well as immigration activists, these violent acts portrayed in the film received special attention alongside a spirited discussion about what can be done to stop them.
Filmed with hidden cameras and state-of-the-art digital software that anonymizes the victims’ faces, Welcome to Chechnya highlights the risks involved in bringing big issues to the world stage. But according to YSPH Dean Sten Vermund, M.D., Ph.D., who participated in the panel, this film can help bridge the gap between academia and public health practice, and bring about important change.
“We can pass on facts, we can pass on evidence, we can highlight the plight of vulnerable persons around the world in various conditions,” Vermund said. “But to dramatize it, to have it sink into one’s heart and soul … That may be where the humanities and the arts can help us uniquely.”
Panel participants also included award-winning executive producer Neal Baer, John Pachankis, Ph.D., the Susan Dwight Bliss Associate Professor of Public Health at YSPH, immigration attorney Deirdre Stradone and Russian-American activist Lyosha Gorschkov. Their perspectives on LGBTQ+ persecution and asylum-seekers underscored the difficulties associated with protecting these vulnerable populations.
To Pachankis, who directs Yale’s LGBTQ Mental Health Initiative, stories like Welcome to Chechnya are valuable for creating a safe environment through which people can fully come out.
“The work of people who create conditions where that’s possible is just as important as individuals’ stories, because that work ultimately leads to more stories being told in peoples’ local lives and families and communities,” Pachankis said.
The film also details the struggle involved with rescuing victims from Chechnya’s anti-LGBT violence. Asylum-seekers must travel under disguise and convince other nations to accept them as refugees, ] a risky process that may take an extended period of time. After waiting in seclusion for months in hopes of receiving a visa, for example, the Russian woman fleeing her family disappears entirely — another potential casualty of this persecution.
Baer, who is also a lecturer at YSPH, said he was struck by the way the film gave human faces to the startling data surrounding anti-gay violence. As public health researchers continue to churn out groundbreaking work, he said, it’s important to make sure it gets to the public in a trustworthy manner — and Welcome to Chechnya is an effective way to do that, he added.
The evening discussion was jointly presented by the Humanities, Arts and Public Health Practice at Yale (the HAPPY Initiative), YSPH and the Yale Schwarzman Center. The event was the latest YSPH effort to shed light on key public health issues through art and media.
“That’s where we come in as scientists, as physicians, as researchers,” Baer said, “to bring and marshal the data and use it to tell compelling, emotionally driven stories.”
Thanks to the HAPPY Initiative’s work in connecting the arts and the humanities, Vermund said, YSPH and public health experts across the world can address global health crises in new ways — much like the makers of this documentary.
“Think about what you learned from seeing this film, and think about what kind of tables, or figures, you might have seen that give you the same impression,” he added. “Until you have something that touches you, something that puts yourself in the shoes of the protagonist, it’s going to be tough to really embrace the field fully.”