July 4, 2020 at 9:39 am EDT | by Brian T. Carney
New HBO docs shed light on Roy Cohn, plight of gays in Chechnya
Roy Cohn, gay news, Washington Blade
President Ronald Reagan and Roy Cohn in the Oval Office in 1983. (photo courtesy HBO via White House Reagan Photographic Office Collection)

Pride month is over, but there’s still goodies to be enjoyed such as two somber new documentaries from HBO. One reminds us that despite recent victories in the U.S., there is still much to be protect the lives of LGBT people around the globe. The other revisits the career of Roy Cohn, the controversial closeted gay lawyer who played a pivotal behind-the-scenes role in shaping right-wing politics in this country from the 1950s to the present.

“Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn” reexamines the well-known highlights of Cohn’s career. In 1951, the 24-year-old Cohn served as a prosecutor for the espionage trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg; his improper communications with witness David Greenglass (Ethel’s brother) and Judge Irving Kaufman led to a guilty verdict and the execution of the Rosenbergs in 1953.

Cohn then served as the chief counsel for Sen. Joseph McCarthy and became one of the architects of the “Lavender Scare” which forced suspected communists and homosexuals from federal employment. Following the collapse of the Army-McCarthy hearings, Cohn entered private practice in New York City.

He became a fixture in high-power legal, political and social circles. His network included the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, George Steinbrenner of the New York Yankees, reputed Mafia leaders, Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager of the legendary Studio 54 and other luminaries of New York society. He was one of the architects of the Reagan Revolution and served as a mentor to real estate developer Donald Trump. He died of complications from AIDS in 1986.

HBO’s new movie promises a fresh look at Cohn’s fascinating career. It’s directed by Ivy Meeropol, a documentary filmmaker and granddaughter of the Rosenbergs and it opens with a shot of Cohn’s panel in the AIDS Memorial Quilt. The inscription on the panel gives the film its title.

Meeropol does offer some fresh insights into the Cohn saga. She provides interesting home movie footage of her family, especially her father Michael. She also provides insightful commentaries about Cohn’s unethical behavior during the trial; noted Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz voices the current scholarly consensus that her grandparents were “guilty but framed.” 

But, while Meeropol makes a compelling case for Cohn as “bully,” she doesn’t make a clear case for Cohn as “coward” or “victim” and her family story gets lost in the overall Cohn saga. “Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn” is a well-made documentary, but Cohn’s story is better told in previous documentaries (“The Lavender Scare” and “Where’s My Roy Cohn?”) and in Tony Kushner’s monumental play “Angels in America.”

Directed by award-winning filmmaker and journalist David France, “Welcome to Chechnya” is a powerful documentary about the heroic activists who are fighting against the systematic persecution of LGBT people in the Russian republic of Chechnya.

David Isteev in the gripping doc ‘Welcome to Chechnya.’ (Photo courtesy HBO)

Since 2016, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, with the implicit support of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has led a brutal campaign of detention, torture and execution against LGBT people of Chechnya. With extremely limited international support, two groups of Chechen and Russian activists are helping LGBT refugees to flee to safety outside the Russian Federation.

Working with co-writer and editor Tyler H. Walk, France effectively deploys a variety of traditional and innovative guerilla filmmaking techniques to tell this incredible story. He focuses on three valiant freedom fighters: David Isteev, the crisis response coordinator for the Russian LGBT Network; Olga Baranova, the founding director of the Moscow Community Center for LGBT+ Initiatives; and, “Grisha,” a survivor of Chechen torture who is forced to flee with his boyfriend “Bogdan” and other members of his family. He weaves their stories together with the stories of other victims of homophobic violence (including “Anya” who is being threatened by members of her own family and gay Chechen pop star Zelim Bakaev who “disappeared” in 2017 after being detained by special security forces) and horrific footage showing the torture of LGBT Chechens.

In addition to using pseudonyms to protect the anonymity of his subjects, France also uses an innovative “face double” technology when interviewing his subjects. This new procedure means that France and Walk do not need to disguise the voices of their subjects or film them in shadows. It gives the documentary a visceral impact that underscores its timely message.

David France, whose previous work includes “How to Survive a Plague” and “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson,” has once again crafted an excellent hard-hitting documentary about LGBT people in crisis. In the face of international indifference and silence from the White House, “Welcome to Chechnya” is an urgent call to arms.

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