Finding the right word to describe “Welcome to Chechnya” isn’t easy. Maybe shocking. Appalling. Disgraceful. Distressing. Ghastly. Heinous. Horrific. Shameful. All of the above.
This documentary, which airs Tuesday at 8 p.m. on HBO, shows us what’s happening to gay people in that Russian republic — and the rest of the Russian Federation — and it’s deeply disturbing. Filmmaker David France goes inside what can only be called a genocide that Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has unleashed against his LGBTQ citizens.
“Welcome to Chechnya,” which premiered at Sundance in January and won the U.S. documentary special jury award for editing, is at once repellent and fascinating as we’re introduced to people whose lives are in danger because of their sexual orientation — including some who have survived imprisonment, beatings and torture.
“It was by far the most emotional journey I’ve ever been on,” said France in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune. “And I’m still on it. I’m still in contact with all those people. I’m still processing, and so is the rest of the crew. We don’t talk about this much, but we’re still in therapy about it. We have group therapy sessions about it to process the work that we had gone through.”
We’re introduced to members of the Russian LGBTQ Network, whose members put their own safety at risk by smuggling people out of Chechnya and, in the best-case scenarios, out of Russia. (President Vladimir Putin’s government is itself decidedly anti-gay, and has turned a blind eye to the kidnappings, torture and murder of the Kadyrov regime.) We meet survivors and their family members, including “Grisha,” who was beaten and tortured for 12 days — so badly injured he could only crawl afterward. Grisha was allowed out of prison because, apparently, he’s from Siberia — but the Chechen authorities later decided they’d made a mistake by letting a witness get away.
‘Deep fake’ technology
Like most of the victims in “Welcome to Chechnya,” Grisha’s identity is hidden with “deep fake” technology. Instead of masking or blurring their faces, they’re replaced digitally with a different face — but the replacement images carry all the emotion of the victims.
(We hear their real voices — almost the entire film is subtitled.)
“Everybody understood the importance of telling the story. Everybody understood that this needed to be exposed,” France said. “And everybody understood that their own testimony was essential to bringing this atrocity back into the public domain. And my task was to convince them to let me shoot their faces and explore their journey, with a promise that I would find a way to disguise them.”
And that included “extreme security protocols” while filming in Chechnya — encrypting the footage and smuggling it out of the country.
“It was very cumbersome, but necessary to keep my end of the promise,” France said. “Luckily, they had enough faith in me. Although some didn’t. Some thought it was too much of a risk. And I understood, of course.”
Unlike the others, Grisha is unmasked late in the film when he goes before cameras to testify about what’s happening in Chechnya. The false face morphs into the real face of Maxim Lapunov, who later appeared with France and two members of the Russian rescue operation, Olga Baranova and David Isteev, at the Sundance premiere to a thunderous standing ovation.
“People felt for them in a very emotional way, and showed it,” France said. “I was so involved in the technical work for the months leading up to Sundance that I hadn’t stepped back to see the film. And then to see it with an audience and to be able to introduce the people who were in the film to that audience — it was a very gratifying experience.”
Hearing the victims recount their stories is devastating. We also see a few clips that France acquired — including a gay man being raped by his captors and a lesbian whose life is about to be ended by members of her own family — and it sucks the breath right out of you. And France had even more horrifying clips that he held back.
“My point in telling the story is to tell just enough of it so that it’s undeniable that it’s going on there. I didn’t want to create a reel of horrors, I wanted to underscore what had happened to the people who were in the film,” France said.
They talk about their injuries and show us bruises that haven’t yet healed. But there is not, of course, footage of them actually being tortured. The found footage of attacks on members of the Chechen LGBTQ community illustrates “the level of terror” victims experienced and “what might happen to them if they got caught. So there was always this dark shadow of the violence that hung over every moment of the time that I was with them.”
We get to see victims in lighter moments — although those simply underscore the fact that these otherwise average, bright, funny people are living with the threat of torture and death hanging over them. And not just them, but their family members, too.
France didn’t want to talk about any threats he or other members of the production team might have received. He did say they have been “concerned about safety” at screenings, and that they “took special safety precautions at Sundance” to protect the people who appear in the film from “any undue danger.”
France is an award-winning journalist who has been a war correspondent in Central America. He covered the the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandal and wrote the bestselling book “Our Fathers,” which was turned into a Showtime movie. He also long covered the AIDS crisis, about which he wrote the award-winning book “How to Survive a Plague,” adapted from his Oscar-nominated 2012 documentary of the same title (which also debuted at Sundance).
His second documentary, “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson” (2017), focuses on a self-described drag queen and one of the leaders of the Stonewall uprising whose death in 1992 was ruled a suicide by police — despite considerable evidence she was killed.
“The three films I’ve made are about a kind of a radical kind of queer activism, that I think really leads the world in bringing a kind of a love-based activism to these really awful issues and making a difference,” France said. “Those are the stories that have really fascinated me — the way that their activists handle these challenges and the specter of death.
“They are tough. They are heartbreaking. But also, they’re inspiring stories, I think.”
(“How to Survive a Plague” is streaming on Amazon Prime; “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson” is streaming on Netflix.)
Hope for change
“Welcome to Chechnya” notes that, under the Trump administration, the United States had not accepted any refugees from Chechnya or the Russian Federation who were fleeing persecution, torture and death because of their sexual orientation. And that hasn’t changed since the documentary was completed.
But France has some hope that Putin can be pressured to rein in Kadyrov and stop him “and the others who, under his authority, are carrying out these atrocities.” If European countries “were united as a single voice on LGBTQ issues,” he said, that could happen. And if a post-Trump administration “merely restored the Obama-era foreign policies that defended LGBTQ people around the world, then that would definitely cause a change in what’s happening in Russia and elsewhere.”
And he’s drawing some hope from the ongoing protests against racism taking place across the United States and around the world.
“A reckoning is essential for all of the crimes against human rights — the smaller, less consequential ones like name-calling, the ones that are life altering and certainly the most extreme examples, like what we see happening in Chechnya, where it’s still going on,” France said. “And in 70 countries across the globe where it’s still illegal to be gay. So there’s a lot of work to be done.”
And making people aware of what’s happening with a film like “Welcome to Chechnya” is the first step.
“I think that documentary films have the power to affect and encourage and augment and foment social change,” France said. “I want people to know what’s going on there. I want people to be invested in it. I want them to feel responsible for doing something to help stop it.”