Doc Talk: seeking refuge, finding refuge, profiting from pain

A scene from "Welcome to Chechnya."
A scene from "Welcome to Chechnya."Courtesy HBO

The title of David France’s harrowing documentary “Welcome to Chechnya” serves in part as a warning to countries devolving toward strong-man rule. They, too, may suffer the same fate as the benighted Russian republic.

Here Ramzan Kadyrov, a brutal, erratic despot, scapegoats a helpless minority to insure his rule. The Putin-appointed president of Chechnya has, much like Putin himself, targeted gays to exploit the populace’s homophobia and distract them from the country’s real problems. He encourages civilians to harass and assault LGBTQ people and authorizes the police to chase down, detain, torture, and kill them. All while brazenly denying that it is happening — challenged in an interview by HBO “Real Sports” host Bryant Gumbel about this systematic pogrom, Kadyrov sneeringly declares, “We don’t have any gays.”


France (whose 2012 “How to Survive a Plague” was nominated for a feature documentary Oscar ) accompanies Russian activists as they extract endangered LGBTQ people from Chechnya and take them to safe houses in Russia in hopes of finding them asylum in other countries. Among those they try to rescue are a young woman whose uncle has threatened to expose her as a lesbian if she won’t have sex with him — her father, a powerful Chechen official, would most certainly kill her if he found out. Another is a young Russian man detained by the Chechen police while he was working in the country; he was beaten and threatened with death and recalls hearing the screams of scores of others being tortured.

The rescue groups know that the Chechens are actively looking for these fugitives and that the Russian authorities are complicit with them and will not help. So they smuggle their charges to secret locations and ultimately to the airport. Shot by France in guerrilla documentary style, the scenes where they pass through checkpoints, learn of people disappearing, and deal with blown covers build in suspense like a fictional thriller. But the film’s hard-to-watch, pirated cellphone video clips of atrocities — men dragged from their cars and beaten, a man gang-raped, a woman dragged into the street by her male relatives who then crush her head with a rock — show the horrible risks involved. As one of the activists says, “If they don’t kill you, you’re a winner.”


“Welcome to Chechnya” can be seen on HBO, HBO GO, and HBO NOW on June 30 and is available on-demand on July 1.

Go to www.hbo.com/documentaries/welcome-to-chechnya.

A scene from "Unsettled: Seeking Refuge in America."
A scene from "Unsettled: Seeking Refuge in America."Lydia Daniller/Jen Gilomen

Gimme shelter

At the end of “Welcome to Chechnya” an epilogue notes that to date the Trump administration has not granted asylum to any LGBTQ refugee seekers from Chechnya. But as can be seen in Tom Shepard’s “Unsettled: Seeking Refuge in America,” even those who have successfully escaped danger in their homeland and made it to the United States find that their problems are just beginning.

Shepard follows the fortunes of four such asylum-seekers who have reached the seeming security and safety of San Francisco.

Junior, a non-binary man from the Democratic Republic of Congo, finds ephemeral love and security with a series of rich, older lovers. But his emotional problems and alcoholism take him to a homeless shelter and finally to the street.

Subhi has escaped death threats in his native Syria and in his new country has found a calling and celebrity as a spokesperson for the LGBTQ community. He’s profiled in magazines, featured on network TV, and even testifies before the United Nations. But he finds that the spotlight can fade, and his future looks uncertain, as does that of his family back home.


But Cheyenne and Mari, a lesbian couple driven from their native Angola, seem likely to persevere. Though their fate is held in doubt by the intransigent and unfeeling bureaucracy of the immigration system, their resilient relationship gives them strength to endure.

They are among the lucky ones. As immigrants and refugees are increasingly demonized and turned away, these stories of four people and their struggle for basic rights and common decency should arouse empathy and indignation.

“Unsettled: Seeking Refuge in America” premieres June 28 at 10 p.m. on PBS World Channel and worldchannel.org.

Go to worldchannel.org/schedule/2020-06-28.

A scene from "Opioids, Inc."
A scene from "Opioids, Inc."Courtesy "Frontline."

Drug lord

Wherever there is suffering you can be sure to find someone eager to exploit it and make a profit. Why not, if the system is set up to reward their initiative, greed, and amorality?

Initially, or so he claimed, John Kapoor got into the pain medication business because he was distraught at witnessing the suffering of his wife as she died of cancer. But as shown in Tom Jennings’s documentary “Opioids, Inc.,” a collaboration between PBS’s “Frontline” and the Financial Times newspaper, he was also in it for the money. Lots of it, and not just for him but for unscrupulous physicians and Wall Street investors willing to profit from his criminal enterprise.


Kapoor’s frequent ploy was to take an existing drug, tweak it slightly, and sell it as a new product at a much higher price. He struck gold with fentanyl, an extremely addictive opioid, 50 times stronger than heroin, which he reconfigured as a fast-acting aerosol sprayed and marketed as Subsys. As a treatment for the intractable pain of late-stage cancer sufferers it proved a godsend.

The problem was that not a lot patients fit that category, certainly not enough to rake in the kind of money that would satisfy Kapoor. So he ordered his sales team to expand the market “by any means necessary” as one former salesperson recalls, and they did so by bribing doctors to over-prescribe the drug, pushing it to all pain sufferers in increasing amounts and higher doses. The strategy worked; and despite the resulting surge in addictions and deaths, and abetted by canny Wall Street investors who saw what was going on and played along, the company and drug became a phenomenal success. Kapoor was on magazine covers and received awards for his business acumen and contributions to mitigating human suffering.

But justice caught up with Kapoor. The ingenuity of the prosecutors who brought him down, and the cravenness and rationalizations of those who turned against him to save their own skins, make for an absorbing detective story and satisfying morality play. Satisfying until you realize that Kapoor is just one of many who thrive in a culture where killing people is no obstacle to making a killing.


“Opioids, Inc.” can be streamed at pbs.org/frontline, YouTube, and the PBS Video App.

Go to www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/opioids-inc.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.