The mistreatment and persecution of the LGBTQ community in Chechnya has been an ongoing issue, but in March 2017 a glaring spotlight was put on the Russian republic as reports of gay and bisexual men being abducted, tortured, beaten and even killed at the hands of authorities started coming to the forefront. Oscar-nominated director David France did not waste any time in deciding to confront this issue head-on with the documentary Welcome to Chechnya, which debuts June 30 on HBO.
In a place where there are no protections for those in the LGBTQ community and where they are openly mistreated and oppressed, France already had a volatile landscape to navigate. In the documentary, he follows a group of undercover activists in Chechnya who risk their lives to rescue victims and provide them with safe houses and visa assistance to escape an oppressive system. We are introduced David Isteev, the Crisis Response Coordinator for the nation-wide Russian LGBT Network as well as Olga Baranova, Director of the Moscow Community Center for LGBT+ Initiatives. With their global network, they offer assistance for those seeking freedom and often hide members of a community at a Moscow shelter.-risk members of the LGBTQ community at a Moscow shelter.
The gripping docu, which made its world premiere at Sundance in January, is emotionally jarring and at times, very difficult to watch. Through face-swapping technology to protect the anonymity of the victims, France gives us a first-hand look at the work of the heroic LGTBQ activists and those affected by it.
France is no stranger to using his platform to amplify LGTBQ history and address pertinent issues that continue to impact the community. For his feature directorial debut, France helmed the eye-opening, Oscar-nominated How To Survive A Plague, which gave audiences a look at the early years of the AIDS epidemic and how the activist groups ACT UP and TAG affected change. His follow up docu, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson revisited the LGBTQ activist and icon’s death which was ruled as a suicide but many believe it was a murder. Welcome to Chechnya continues France’s use of documentary film to bring overlooked stories to the surface and while doing so, bringing hope and inspiration to those in the margins.
Deadline spoke to France about his latest documentary, what motivated him to act, how his journalistic background helped in telling these stories and the dangers that came with making the film.
DEADLINE: The news about the mistreatment and abuse of the LGBTQ community in Chechnya has been going on for some time, but when did you decide to make a documentary about it?
DAVID FRANCE: I was concerned about what was happening in Chechnya from the original news reports back in early 2017. But by the middle of the summer, we learned that the atrocities there and the horrors there were still ongoing. We had heard nothing out of the new U.S. administration to try and stop it and that in fact, there was really very little in the way of political pressure on Russia to end this horror and to bring the perpetrators to justice. That meant that it was left to the LGBTQ community there to do something about it. I learned about the work that the activists were doing and I saw that I hadn’t heard of this kind of desperate efforts to rescue and hide people from persecution since the Nazi era…and so I joined in right away to try and tell the story. I flew to Russia for the first time in August and stayed embedded with the whole underground operation there for 20 months.
DEADLINE: There seem to be so many landmines that you had to step over when you were making this film. What were your apprehensions, if any and how did you even begin to navigate the risks and danger in making this film?
FRANCE: I have experience as a print journalist in covering really dangerous conditions and situations in other countries. I have war correspondence background, but I had never worked in Russia. So it was really a crash course for me to try to understand what the Russian central government is capable of and what kind of risks that exposing the story would entail for them. We used that as a way to try to measure how much of an obstacle they might wind up being as I was telling the story. Ultimately, to do that, I realized I had to bring in outside advisors who knew the territory, the politics, and who knew how to advise journalistic crews as they tried to pursue stories under those circumstances. I was pretty well defended with a team of security advisors that helped me put together protocols, not just for my personal safety and the safety of my crew, but also so that we could understand and then behave in such a way so as not to expose any of the people who were doing this work in Russia, to any additional peril.
Because we were shooting all of this and putting it all on cards and on drives, we had to enact a very strict security routine for protecting those digital files. Making sure, for example, that none of the video clips ever touched the internet. We couldn’t transmit anything across the internet. We never allowed the footage to touch a computer that had ever been on the internet. We devised multiple levels of security around getting footage out of the country as soon as possible. Most were encrypted multiple copies in case something happened to any of the drives. It was a situation which we had to be extremely careful because other people’s lives hung in the balance.
DEADLINE: Speaking to that, the people who you documented, how did they come to you? How was it like filming them in what many would consider a high-anxiety situation?
FRANCE: Well, we had a very, very, very small footprint. It was me and my producer, Askold Kurov He’s my Russian producer on the ground. He’s also the camera operator — and our camera was a consumer Sony camera. We weren’t there with some big rig, lights or a boom.
We were just sitting quietly in those shelters, just observing people as they got their footing and began the difficult work of reckoning with what had happened to them as well as the terrible uncertainty of the life ahead. There was so much on their plate: emotional, psychological, political and diplomatic work. We were able to fade away into the woodwork.
DEADLINE: There is a lot of footage that shows violence against LGBTQ people in Russian and it is difficult to watch. What was the process of deciding what to show viewers and what to leave out?
FRANCE: When I went into the project, the idea that I was investigating was what had happened there and how it was happening — how the Chechnyan government was structured and who within that structure was doing what. We really went in to forensically take apart what was happening there. That’s how we came across that footage. We knew from everybody that we spoke to, that their torture had been recorded. We knew that those recordings had been shared amongst the people who were committing the crimes and shared with their superiors as proof; that they had carried out the instructions. So we did what we could to try to penetrate those chat groups, where these things were being shared and boasted about. With the activists on the ground, we found indisputable evidence of these crimes that they’re just denying. I mean, they stand before cameras and before lawmakers and just say it’s not happening. We wanted to rip back that curtain and show that not only is it happening, but it is as awful as you can imagine. All of that was the backdrop of the story of all the people who we were following. They knew what had happened there because they had experienced it. They knew what would happen to them again if they got caught. That was the noise that they were running from and that’s why we included it. It defined their journey…we wanted to bolster their stories, claims, allegations and their experiences at the hands of their security forces.
DEADLINE: How has your relationship with the activists and the subjects featured in the documentary been since finishing the film?
FRANCE: I’m in contact with most of them and it’s a very warm relationship — but it’s one where I and my whole team feel a great deal of responsibility for the ongoing safety for those people. We’ve kept them informed about the rollout of the film. We have made sure that they’re feeling comfortable and safe — that they’re prepared for everything that might be sparked because of this film. I have this incredible admiration for them — just for survival alone. To be able to find their way through the sudden uncertain future into foreign countries where they don’t speak the language and where they have to set up a life of secrecy where they can’t communicate with their family members — they’re really just stateless people. We try to make sure that we are there to support and encourage them as they’re making adjustments.
DEADLINE: The documentary made its world premiere at Sundance, which wasn’t that long ago, but it was also a very different time. How has your relationship with the film changed from then compared to now?
FRANCE: I still have the same relationship with the film, but my relationship with the activist has become different because of the pandemic. They have been much more desperate to continue to do their work through the shutdown, and the Chechnyan government exercised one of the most restrictive shutdowns in the world, making it impossible for anybody to make an escape. So there’s been a great deal of concern about the people who’ve been left behind, keeping in touch with them and waiting for an opportunity to continue doing this lifesaving work.
DEADLINE: You have been a strong voice when it comes to telling LGTBQ stories. Before Welcome to Chechnya, you directed How To Survive a Plague and The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson. Your films are very in-depth and quite heavy when it comes to pertinent issues.
FRANCE: I should point out that I’m a very lighthearted person, which you might not have noticed from my three very frequently dark pictures. (laughs) But I think there’s something in each one of those films that is inspiring and life-affirming — and that is the work of the activist. That’s what drew me to those three stories. It’s the way that people, even in dire circumstances, even when given a diagnosis with a death sentence, even when living so marginally that you are homeless almost your entire life, even coming from Chechnya — that there is this inner strength that some people many people can call on in those circumstances, to grin and to do these extraordinary things. That’s what fascinates me. I like to think that Welcome To Chechnya is… a story about love. It’s a story about the way that community shows love for itself and for strangers within the community and people they’d never met; the lengths that they go to and the incredible risk just to rescue these strangers and bring them back to health in the safe houses and find ways to accompany them to their new lives. That’s a story about heroes.