For LGBTQ people in Chechnya, life has become a nightmare.
The Russian republic has never been very hospitable to gays, but in 2017 the Chechen government launched an outright purge against perceived members of the LGBTQ community.
“People in Chechnya who are suspected of being lesbian, gay or bisexual, are facing a ‘new wave of persecution’ following a spate of killings involving torture, and other rights abuses,” a group of UN human rights experts wrote in 2019.
Since then the situation has only worsened, as witnessed in the Oscar-shortlisted documentary Welcome to Chechnya, directed by David France. The film contains first-hand accounts from torture survivors who were spirited to safety through a clandestine “rainbow railroad” operated by the Russian LGBT Network.
“We see irrefutable evidence that it is a government-controlled genocide,” France tells Deadline, “and that’s something that we haven’t seen since Hitler against the LGBTQ community—this belief that you could somehow round up and then liquidate all LGBTQ members of a minority.”
The systematic persecution has allegedly been orchestrated by Ramzan Kadyrov, the Putin-backed strongman who rules the largely Muslim Chechen Republic. Kadyrov has scoffed at accusations of coordinated violence against and extermination of gays, absurdly claiming there are no gay people in Chechnya and therefore no one to treat in such a fashion.
“One of Kadyrov’s innovations was to deputize all Chechens to join in the campaign,” France comments. “So now family members and neighbors, employers, school administrators, have all been charged with helping to find queer Chechens, to bring their identities out publicly and then in some cases even the government is strong-arming families to carry out so-called ‘honor killings,’ to do the dirty work themselves as part of this government campaign.”
One of the key figures in the HBO documentary is “Grisha,” a gay Russian man who worked in Chechnya and was snatched in the authorities’ dragnet of LGBTQ people. He was tortured and later released, then fled the republic and took refuge with the Russian LGBT Network.
“He’s the embodiment of kindness, his work in Chechnya was all about giving joy to people…He was an event planner, he would help people with their weddings, he’s a singer and musician, and he was about all the good things in life,” France notes. “And yet when they discovered, by torturing other people, his identity, they just treated him with intense violence.”
The director used innovative digital technology to mask Grisha’s identity, as he did with a number of other escapees featured in the documentary. Welcome to Chechnya has also been shortlisted for the Oscars in the visual effects category, the first time a documentary has earned that distinction.
“Grisha was like everybody else at the beginning of the process, only interested in participating in my filming with the promise that he would be disguised,” France says, “that his anonymity would be defended and maintained.”
Grisha made the brave decision to publicly accuse Chechen officials of torturing him, a critical step because doing so could trigger a formal investigation.
“No one had gone public with their charges, for fear of the ramifications against their family members,” France notes. “Grisha had a very small family and they all got together and concluded that they would all be willing to go into exile for him to be able to do this and his motivation was not just to bring justice in his own case—he lives every day in fear about what’s happening to other people, to new people all the time. And he wanted to bring an end to this campaign.”
Welcome to Chechnya shows the dramatic news conference in Russia where Grisha made his allegations public, giving up the safety of anonymity.
“We kept him in disguise [in the film] until he took that disguise off himself,” France states, “which at that moment reveals not just his identity, but his vulnerability and his courage to step forward and say, ‘My name is not Grisha. My name is Maxim Lapunov and here is my story for the world to hear.’”
France, who earned an Oscar nomination for his 2013 film How To Survive a Plague, went on the ground to make Welcome to Chechnya, filming in Russia and in Chechnya itself. He and his team traveled to the republic to surreptitiously document efforts to extract a young gay woman who was facing possible death.
“We were all very nervous about pulling this off,” France admits. “We rehearsed over and over how we were going to do it. We used my obviousness as a decoy so that we could actually be sitting in the same restaurant where the extraction was taking place, knowing all eyes would be on me more than on the actual action. And I was fiddling with my cell phone—I shot half of that scene just as a tourist, making big gestures and making myself obvious and then spinning the camera distractedly, to make sure that I would get the scenes that we were looking for.”
Welcome to Chechnya has won awards at film festivals around the world, including São Paolo, Thessaloniki, the Amnesty International Prize at the Berlin Film Festival and the top prize at the International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival.
“The response has really been tremendous. You do a film like this because you want to reach people who can make a difference,” France observes. “We screened in Washington for lawmakers in June and within 72 hours the Trump administration, of all places, issued sanctions against the Kadyrov regime for the first time for the crimes against the queer community there. Additional sanctions have been issued by the EU, the European Parliament, the UK, Canada, and other countries and political bodies, that have increased the pressure on Russia to do something to stop this.”
In the meantime, the work continues to rescue victims of the Chechen purge. France says the number of people killed during the anti-LGBTQ campaign remains unknown.
“It could be in the thousands and thousands,” he says. “We just don’t know and we’re not going to know until they permit official investigators from the EU, from the UN, to go in there and actually talk to people freely and get to the bottom of it.”