Oscar-nominated director David France has been at the helm of some of the most noted LGBTQ-themed documentaries ever made. His “How To Survive a Plague” looked at the AIDS crisis, and his “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson” chronicled the late trans activist. France’s latest film—“Welcome to Chechnya,” which debuted at Sundance earlier this year and is now airing on HBO—is a powerful examination of the thousands of LGBTQ individuals dealing with the anti-gay leadership of the southern Russian republic of Chechnya.
France was stunned when he first heard about the area’s queer purge, even moreso when he read a 2017 The New Yorker article written by Masha Gessen. “It’s ongoing, a fundamental campaign to round up and liquidate every LGBTQ Chechnyan,” says France. “It is entirely parallel to Hitler’s campaign for the queer community.” What surprised the director the most was why no one was doing anything about it. “Where are the reporters, the world leaders, the international bodies brought together to respond to this kind of crime against humanity? That started me on my process.”
Formerly an investigative reporter, France blames the lack of attention to the subject on the media and their obsession with Donald Trump and his Twitter feed, especially in 2017. “His first year dominated and entertained them in a way that caused them to spend so much time dissecting tweet after tweet. The mainstream press began to belittle and diminish Trump and it took so much of the news angle that few other stories were able to break through. If it weren’t for Masha and her ongoing work in The New Yorker, no one would know what’s going on there.”
Through Gessen, France was able to reach out to a network of queer activists who offer a shelter for Chechnyan evacuees. “We had a video call in which I proposed that I come and tell their story and bring it out to the world. They accepted right away, but said I might have a problem with the people who are fleeing because their identities cannot be revealed. This campaign is one that will chase and hunt them down around the globe. I promised everyone I would disguise them and they had to trust it would work.” He was able to digitally alter the subject’s faces and voices in the film with help from VFX supervisor Ryan Laney.
The project took almost 20 months to film. He was able to gain access to Chechnya the same way activists did—he snuck in. “There is no true border. Chechnya has its own security forces and checkpoints. They don’t stop everybody and the hope is that they won’t stop you on the way in or out.”
One time when he was leaving the capital, the car he was in was pulled over. “When they saw I was an American they detained me and asked what I was doing there,” France recalls. “It could have gone poorly, but they luckily let me on my way.”
It was vital for France to protect the evacuees and the activists. During the film, there was constant worry that someone might be following him. “Every time I carried footage with images on it out of the shelter I worried that it could be intercepted in terms of who and where (the evacuees) were. We developed strict protocols and had some unusual security measures.”
The day to day life for LGBTQ people in Chechnya is quite severe. “In order to hide, everyone must go through the ceremony of heterosexuality. They marry and if they are lucky they marry within the community. They have children and live in a lie in order to keep themselves alive. They cannot safely reach out to each other. A security system broke into a phone and found a circle of friends. Some people have been discovered and hide in absolute isolation. They are not able to escape because of COVID. The borders have been shut down and people are living in conditions you can only imagine.”
While Canada has granted asylum to some of the evacuees, the Trump administration has not.
The hope for the film, says France, is to get the word out about the atrocities in the area, tell the stories of those who’ve fled and find a way to help those still there.
“Welcome to Chechnya” is now airing on HBO.