In early 2017, the first whispers of an anti-gay purge had begun to appear from the Russian Chechen Republic. Kremlin-critical newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported that suspected gay men were being arrested by forces loyal to the region’s leader, Ramzan Kadyrov. Some were detained before being returned to their families, who were encouraged to murder the men themselves in so-called “honour killings”. Others simply never returned.
At the time, officials in Moscow promised to investigate the reports. Although Chechnya has autonomy from Russia in areas such as law enforcement and education, the region’s government still reports to the Kremlin and falls under Russian federal law. But in reality, the purge has continued. Human rights groups reported a second wave of detentions and deaths in December 2019.
In his documentary Silent Voice, Chechen director Reka Valerik concentrates on the fate of just one of the men who escaped the 2017 purge. (Valerik works under a pseudonym for fear of being persecuted by Chechen authorities.) Khavaj is a young martial arts fighter who fled Chechnya for Belgium after his brother discovered that was gay and threatened to have him killed. The traumatic experience left Khavaj with psychogenic aphonia, also known as mutism. Forced into a new life and unable to speak, he has little left besides his own body and the voice messages his mother leaves on his phone.
It was those voice messages that convinced Valerik to focus on Khavaj’s story alone, rather than following several protagonists as he’d originally planned. “I didn’t exactly choose him, I chose his mother. I was very touched when I heard her voice messages,” he told The Calvert Journal. But making a film about a person who cannot speak, and whose identity had to be kept secret for his own safety, proved to be a challenging endeavor. “Film is an audiovisual artform,” Valerik says. “I didn’t have Khavaj’s audio, and I couldn’t show his face either.”
Valerik stresses that every decision in Silent Voice was dictated by care for Khavaj’s wellbeing. He met Khavaj back while he was still seeking asylum in Russia, and stayed with him on his journey through his new life in Belgium. “I didn’t want to traumatise him more with the film. I wanted him to fully understand why I am making this film and build trust,” says the director. “I spent two years with him before I brought my camera in and we got to know each other.” Once they began filming, the process was nothing short of a collaboration. Khavaj agreed to reenact his first experiences as a refugee, revisiting locations where he had met with social workers, and relistening to his mother’s voice messages. In these scenes, Khavaj returns not to particular events, but rather to a state of being. The aftermath of his trauma is marked by silence and the small bodily gestures which fill the screen. It’s a portrait of an internal world externalised; of a young athlete’s attempts to reconnect with a body he’s lost control of.
“The more information we have, the less we’re sensitive to it,” says Valerik when asked about the minimalist approach of his film. “The viewer’s imagination can be much more powerful than my own. I’d rather create this journey together with the viewer and let them read what they see on screen through their own histories and experiences.”
The information we have left is often details of Khavaj’s body, confined in texture-dense close-ups and soundtracked by the young man’s breathing. His body becomes one with both the camera and the viewers, creating a rare portrait of empathetic masculinity. “I wanted to create a cinema experience where the viewers can interact with the body and physically feel what’s happening,” says Valerik.
The director ultimately explores every creative tool that cinema has to offer to communicate Khavaj’s experience. As the young man struggles to regain his speech, we see fragments of his body boxed up in a 1:19:1 aspect ratio, predominantly used in cinema during the transition period from silent films to talkies. Elsewhere, the voice messages from Khavaj’s mother become an unreliable, unseen narrator. In a rare scene filmed with other refugees, a social worker warns the group that their families could use emotional manipulation to force them back to Chechnya. The men are told to cut off all communication and change their numbers. “When I met Khavaj, my main question was whether his mother really wanted him to come back, or whether she was being manipulated by another member of the family, or even the police [to send these messages],” says Valerik. “Every time I saw him, I was scared that he wouldn’t be there for our next meeting.”
Silent Voice had planned to have its Russian premiere at the famous Artdocfest in Moscow, founded by renowned documentary filmmaker Vitaly Mansky. The film was eventually awarded the festival’s jury prize, but the screening itself was cancelled amid continuous threats from Chechen anti-LGBTQ+ activists. To this day, very few Russians have seen the film. “We were in contact with a journalist in Russia and created a secure link that was only available for a few hours. That way, he was able to show the film to 20-30 people in an apartment,” says Silent Voice’s executive producer David Hurst. He sees hope in those small acts of resistance. But because of events like these, as well as news about the assassination of a Chechen opponent in Lille in January 2020, during the post-production of Silent Voice, the filmmakers decided to hide Valerik’s true identity. Hurst says that the events in Lille prompted him to seek help from the French secret police. “They put a watch on Reka [Valerik] and the team, to make sure Chechen authorities weren’t after us. But it seems like they have other problems,” he says, half-jokingly.
Along with David France’s Welcome to Chechnya, Silent Voice is the second documentary about the anti-LGBTQ+ purge in the Caucasian republic to premiere in the past year. Besides the international attention, Valerik and Hurst don’t believe that a systemic change will come soon. Instead, what they hope for is for the Chechen mothers who lost children to the purge to see Silent Voice on screen. “I dedicated the film to all those mothers who lost their sons and daughters, who don’t know where their children are,” says Valerik.
Silent Voice is screening at New East Cinema at the Barbican Centre in London on Wednesday 11 August 2021. For more information, click here.