In 2017, Russia’s Chechen Republic declared open season on LGBTQ people, launching what Human Rights Watch has called a “vicious large-scale anti-gay purge.” David France, director of the HBO documentary Welcome to Chechnya, says there’s another word for it.
“It’s an absolute genocide,” France said during an appearance at Deadline’s Contenders Television: Documentary + Unscripted awards-season event. “It’s the first time since Hitler that a government leader has declared a campaign to round up and eliminate the LGBTQ community. …That’s what’s going on in Chechnya, that’s what’s being permitted by the Russian government, and that’s what we wanted to show in this film.”
The documentary unfolds like a thriller as activists with the Russian LGBT Network enter Chechnya to exfiltrate gay people in danger of being tortured or killed by Chechen authorities. The filmmakers, including director of photography and producer Askold Kurov, took extraordinary precautions to document the secret rescue operations and safeguard the footage.
“We used small handy cameras, sometimes it was GoPro, sometimes cell phone. …We stored it on encrypted drives,” Kurov said. “We never had any copies in Russia. We followed these secure protocol rules very strictly because it was a question of life and death of these people.”
France added, “We were very careful to make sure none of that footage ever touched the Internet ever—never touched a computer that touched the Internet. We kept it so air-gapped because we knew that our opponents were state actors that had the capacity to find their way into our edit room, for example, in mysterious ways.”
Several victims of anti-LBGTQ violence in Chechnya participated in the documentary, with the understanding that their identities would be shielded. France and his team used innovative visual effects to replace the faces of those subjects with what amounted to a “substitute” face.
“Through this AI technique their anonymity is protected. They still wanted to take whatever risk even that much exposure entailed for them to tell their stories, to expose these crimes, to call upon world governments to take action. And the risks to them were not minimal,” France said. “We asked them to let us film their faces and film their realities with a promise that we would disguise them later…and they really took a great leap of faith to allow us to do that.”
One of their primary subjects, a man who went by the pseudonym “Grisha,” made the courageous decision to publicly accuse Chechen officials of torturing him.
“Halfway through the film he reclaims his real name—Maxim—and reclaims his real face and goes public,” France noted, “and becomes the target and the leader of this movement to bring facts to bear in the campaign for justice in Chechnya.”
Earlier this month, the Russian LGBT Network joined with a German nonprofit group to file charges in Germany accusing Chechnya’s leadership, including close associates of strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, of crimes against humanity. It’s part of a growing push demanding an end to the anti-LGBTQ purges in Chechnya.
“In Australia…there’s a huge petition movement where the government is being pressured to speak out against Kadyrov. So it’s really a global phenomenon,” said producer Alice Henty. “The reason we made this film was because it was so silent in the media after the initial story came about in 2017 that this was happening. Then there was silence. So we really wanted to make the film to, A, show that it’s still happening and, B, to reignite…the international outcry and to make sure governments made their position clear that this isn’t something that’s acceptable.”
Check out the panel video above.