'Welcome to Chechnya' Director David France on the Purge and making the harrowing film
It's hard to believe that in 2022, there's a purge of LGBT+ people. In the Russian republic of Chechnya, the government not only tolerates oppression, torture and murder — they openly support it.
The documentary, 'Welcome to Chechnya' is a harrowing exploration into the innocent queer people caught up in the hatred. We talk to director David France on the situation in Chechnya, and if there is any hope for those who want to risk everything, and escape.
There are many accounts of murders, honor killings, trophy killings, imprisonments and even torture in Chechnya. The attacks come from the state, police, and even amongst every day citizens.
In the past couple of months, there is the case of Ismail and Salekh, where two gay men were kidnapped and tortured by Chechen police, due to their sexuality and "activism".
The Russian LGBT Network are featured throughout the documentary. This organisation is one of the few lifelines of support for young queer people attempting to flee leader Ramzan Kadyrov and his government.
Since its release, David France's documentary had been shortlisted for two Oscar nominations: Best Documentary Feature, and Visual Effects. David talks to 'The New East is Queer' about the purge and the creation of the film.
EAST: How did you first hear about the situation in Chechnya?
David: The crisis in Chechnya first made headlines in April 2017, when a Russian investigative newspaper discovered what was happening there, and revealed it. It was horrifying. Then it wasn’t until that summer when I read an article about what activists are doing or were having to do, in order to be able to respond to the crisis there. The government was doing nothing, the campaign was ongoing, it really had not slowed down at all given the quiet international outcry around the revelation of the genocide taking place there. I was drawn to the story because of the increasing desperation on the part of the LGBTQ community in Russia, to try and do something to save lives there. I travelled into Russia for the first time in August 2017 to meet the people who were running the underground network of safe houses, and to see what I could do to document the work that they were taking on, and to bring more attention to it.
EAST: Each year ‘ILGA Europe’ release an annual review of LGBT+ rights around the world. The 2020 report showed how COVID-19 unearthed how extremely fragile LGBT+ rights are. Since you have finished your project on Chechnya, have you noticed an impact on how COVID-19 has affected the struggles of LGBT+ people in Chechnya, and those attempting to flee?
David: It has severely impacted them. For Queer people across the globe, it has locked us into situations that are uncomfortable, they have been increasingly perilous. Mobility is really the first solution to anti-queer hostility. Getting out and getting away- escaping. In Chechnya, escaping is essential. When they lock the borders in Chechnya, its a perilous situation there, and made it virtually impossible. It would take many months before the Russian LGBT Network can continue their extreme activism- which was what they were doing- which involved sneaking into Chechnya, and arranging assignations with people who reached out to them for help, and spiriting them out of the region. That was impossible for months. Its still very difficult. In that period, the ongoing campaign of the discovery of hunting, really, has not slowed. While people are unable to move, those who are hunting them are finding them left and right, and we don’t have any really communications or contact with people in Chechnya, to know the extreme to which that genocide has escalated in this period. But we know that it is in full force, and that has put many people in mortal danger.
EAST: Over the past few years, in Europe, we seem to be going backwards. Poland has LGBT free zones, Hungary is adding disclaimers to Lesbian fiction, now Slovenia is censoring the press and attacking liberal communities. This is all happening within the European Union, and the international community are not doing enough. Do you think this shows a weak message to Chechnya, and does it give them freedom to crack down even harder on LGBT+ communities?
David: This roll back of LGBTQ progress over the last decade has been severe. It is something that too many of us haven’t acknowledged directly. Its not so much a Chechnya problem as it is a Russia problem. It is architected by the Kremlin in a campaign to create a scapegoat and to build fears around the LGBTQ community. To turn the general population against queer progress. To label it as the product of Western Liberalism and democracy, an unhappy import that needs to be countered. That has been happening throughout Russia, and we see that Chechnya is merely the extreme expression of it. Its the end of that whip. That whip has touched neighbouring countries, as you have pointed out, places where Russia has influence. It has grown well beyond the boundaries of Russia, including- as we saw over the last four years- the US, where those of us who have been part of the Queer movement from the early days, felt so secure in our victories and progress, that it was stunning to us that the whole ‘culture war’ concept can return to become a dire reality here, and in so many other places. Its a call to the community, to the movement to stand back up again and not be complacent and satisfied with things like legal recognition of our relationships, when the battle for the hearts and minds of citizens in general, still need to be fought on a regular basis.
EAST: How difficult was it to film?
EAST: How did you manage to safeguard the footage
David: When we moved into post production, we also realised our detractors were state actors. We had to be careful about the possibility of hacking and other internet opposition to the work that we were doing. So we kept all of our footage off the internet. We kept our edit suite air gapped, meaning that non of the computers that we were working on were attached to the internet. They were all internet naive. We really functioned in this lockdown situation there. We didn’t tell anyone about the work that we were doing, when we did have to bring people in to help us, we had to move from any internet connected devices, we were very careful to keep our data as secure as possible, until we had the chance to do all of the security review of every frame in the film. To make sure that there wasn’t any reveals that could have harmed any individuals or the system itself.
EAST: In the film you used many explicit videos/clips, showing the brutal attacks against the LGBT+ community. They were quite extreme and harrowing to watch as a viewer. Why did you decide to put them in the film?
EAST: How did you reach out to the participants and the victims?
David: I first reached out to Masha who ran the Moscow end of the network, director of the Moscow Community Centre for LGBT initiatives. She was keen to work with me and to find a way to get into the system. Once I did get into the system, they introduced me to the survivors who were living there, and making their way through the system onto safety or more relative safety in other parts of the world. I just worked with them in discussions, to see how interested they were in telling the world what happened to them and how comfortable they felt in allowing me to tell that story forward, what I might do to make them more comfortable. Of course, we discovered immediately that everyone knew they were being hunted to the end of the earth. This genocide is a perverse campaign by the Chechen leadership and government to cleanse the blood of the Chechen people. Its not enough in this formulation- this mad formulation- to scare people into leaving. The campaign itself really is a liquidation campaign. There was no way they could appear in any film with their face of their likeness or anything that would directly suggest their identity. I promised them I'd find a way to meet that challenge and I would work with them to do it. Not everybody had the bandwidth to even think about doing that kind of work, and those people obviously didn’t participate within the film. Many of these safe-houses were large enough that I was able to say, when I was there: “I will be filming over in these rooms, so stay in these rooms if you are feeling safe”, and I was happy to do that. We worked with a really extensive appearance release that gave multiple choices: Do you want to appear with your face? Do you want to appear with your voice? Do you want to appear with your real name or your nickname? Or your real age or a fake age? Do you want to reserve the right to review the footage for security purposes? Do you want to approve the disguise approach? And all those multiple choice forms, we were able to come up with agreements for the people in the film which made them feel confident that they could do what they wanted to do- which was to tell the world about what’s happening here. To expose the crimes, to do it in a way that might bring justice in their own cases, but hopefully, bring an end to the campaign to save other people from having to go through what they had gone through.
EAST: In the documentary you used the most incredible special effects to protect the identities of the victims. It has even won you an Oscar nomination for best special effects, and 'Welcome to Chechnya' is the first film to be nominated for that category. How did the effects come about?
EAST: Did you learn anything about yourself? Did it change you in any way?
David: Thats interesting. I think it did. I think it made me braver. I took up this project thinking I would be meeting survivors of this unspeakable horror, and that I would be conveying the strength of their survival instinct. But what I saw immediately was courage that they have. Not just their innate desire to survive, but the courage that they had to make something of it, to fight it. Of course the activists, non of whom was required to do the work that they were doing, except in sense of their own humanity. They converted what were ordinary and safe lives, into this war against evil. Regardless of how they new it would be changing their lives. The kind of expression of humanity and love- as I kept thinking of it as- is something that I had never seen before. It certainly reminded me of history books about the way ordinary Europeans responded to protect the lives of Jews under Hitler, by inviting danger in their own communities- and that really moved me. I think it fortified me in a way, to know that there are people who can do that, and who willingly do that, even though they don’t need to. Thats still inspiring. Its not just good to know they’re out there- people like that are out there- it changes you. It makes you realise that if you are called upon, you might be able to make those decisions in the same way.