Since 2017, a deadly anti-gay “cleansing” has threatened the survival of LGBTQ people living inside the Chechen Republic. The nation’s Putin-supported leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, proudly denies the purge, despite reports from victims, survivors, and their families of brutal atrocities. A brave few have rendered official testimony before government commissions, and spoken directly to the media. Their ongoing battle to bring the truth to light, and justice to the abused, took a significant step forward with the Pride Month premiere of HBO’s must-see, real-time documentary Welcome to Chechnya.
Slipping behind the Chechen Republic’s iron curtain of intolerance to shoot a film required extreme preparation and precision for director David France and his crew. “The people who were at real risk were the Chechens who were making their escapes,” says France of the documentary’s subjects. The film follows queer rebels like Anya, a 21-year old fleeing the country with help from an underground network of activists led by Russian LGBT Network emergency program coordinator David Isteev. “The second level of danger,” France adds, “was for the activists who were doing that work.”
Urgency permeates nearly every scene, as the film, embedded with Isteev’s operation, stops in a Moscow safe-house run by activist Olga Baranova, and races towards freedom with formerly detained gay couple Grisha and Bogdan. Yet, France — the Oscar-nominated director of the essential HIV-AIDS documentary How to Survive a Plague — insists he never felt in peril for himself, thanks to thorough planning. “We created these levels of deniability,” he explains. “When we were in public, it was not known that I was working with anybody else in that public setting. If discovered, I would just be my own person and explain that I was a tourist or whatever. But, hopefully, not let it be known that what I was filming was these daring extractions of people.”
The filmmaker and crew kept their shoot undercover by porting around decoy devices. “I had a cellphone that I filled with tourist photographs. I had cards for my camera that were evidence of my having been a tourist and nothing else. I made sure to create a fictional explanation for what I was doing that always separated me from what the activists were doing and what the survivors were doing.”
Stealth allowed France to emerge with startling footage supporting the testimony of refugees like Grisha and Bogdan, both eyewitnesses to the regime’s campaign of detention and torture. And digital subterfuge was required to cloak the refugees’ identities, since, even beyond Chechnya’s borders, there are forces that aggressively pursue those who escape in order to silence them. “That’s why they’re being protected with different faces,” says executive producer Neal Baer, “because the Chechen diaspora has received word to eliminate these people wherever they are.”
Baer, who joined the project after the filming, lauds the courage of all of the onscreen participants, and the director. “I’m proud of David, and I’m grateful to the refugees and the activists for allowing David to film. This was a film made by a lot of people. But David [earns] the praise for what he’s done.”
France, in turn, hails those who entrusted their stories to this movie and its producers, who also include How to Survive a Plague collaborator Joy Tomchin and actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson. A former investigative journalist for Newsweek, GQ, and New York Magazine, France took every precaution to assure the film’s subjects of the utmost discretion. “We were filming people’s faces, people whose identities could never be known, and promising them that we would protect the footage that we were shooting, that we would never let it out of our hands. We would never put it in a place where it could ever be intercepted.”
Having successfully evaded enemy interception, Welcome to Chechnya exposes this shocking story to a world roiled by the uncertainty of a pandemic, and unprecedented financial, political, and social upheaval. Adding to the 2020 deluge, the situation for LGBTQ Chechens won’t be improved by recent developments in mother Russia, where voters just approved a ban on same-sex marriage. And, no surprise, under the current presidential administration, no Chechen asylum seekers have been granted safe haven in the United States.
But France sees signs of hope in those who have found safer haven, like Bogdan and Grisha, the latter of whom discloses his true identity in the film as Russian-born Maxim Lapunov. The couple were on hand for the film’s world premiere at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, “a really exciting moment,” France recalls.
“I saw them next in Berlin, and they came with Maxim’s mother. It was just really wonderful to see them meeting their audience, and understanding what they had accomplished already through their act of bravery, in coming forward and becoming the only plaintiffs to bring a case against their abductors, and the members of the Chechen security forces who tortured Maxim so violently, then began to hunt him down to silence him. To see how audiences reacted to that, it really gave them power, I think, and a new understanding of what they had been able to accomplish, even if their case has so far not produced real justice.”
METRO WEEKLY: Did you originally move to New York from Michigan to be a journalist?
DAVID FRANCE: No. I moved to New York to be a gay. Unfortunately, I landed in New York just a couple of weeks before HIV was first reported. I got to the city in June of ’81. The first reports of HIV were in July, the July 4th weekend, 39 years ago. I took up journalism when everybody in the community was called upon to do something. And I knew that I couldn’t do what so many others were doing. I couldn’t be a good caregiver. I didn’t have a good bedside manner. I was freaked out about death and dying. So I found an arm’s length role for myself in journalism. My first series of articles were all about the epidemic, and I continued covering it for all those years.
MW: One of your jobs was at the New York Post, where you reportedly experienced discrimination. How did that go down?
FRANCE: I was counseled by a mentor when I applied for a job at the New York Post to not present any of my background, because they would not hire me if they had understood that I came up through the queer presses. So I went in as a total neophyte. They hired me to give me a try, to bring me up as a cub reporter in the old newspaper system. I was working on the investigations desk with the investigations editor. I was his assistant. He discovered my clips and called me into his office to present me with my own history as a queer journalist, and fired me on the spot for being queer, for not having told him that I was queer, which would have precluded my hiring in the first place, and for having deceived him. It was my queer background that triggered the firing.
MW: Did you feel vindication, seeing the Supreme Court rule this summer that the Civil Rights Act includes LGBTQ employees under its protections from being fired for their sex or orientation?
FRANCE: I absolutely did. It was I think the most consequential LGBTQ decision from the Supreme Court ever. I think it’s going to impact people’s lives in real, important ways across the country. We have yet to see how it’s going to play out. I think there’s going to be some skirmishes around it, but it sets the U.S. law for the first time in defense of LGBTQ rights in employment. That’s pretty fundamental.
I was at the first founding meeting of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, which came after my firing from the New York Post. That organization really reformed hiring practices at newspapers. For the most part, we’ve seen queer journalists flourishing in newspapers large and small, and news operations across the country. So that through the movement itself, changes were affected in that industry. But this new ruling goes so far beyond it. We see that just in the diversity of plaintiffs in the case, who were skydiving instructors and undertakers, and areas where the companies are much smaller and have been historically much less responsive to social change and the fundamental impacts of the queer movement over the last decade.
MW: At the time that this happened at the New York Post, since this was before there was an advocacy group on the side of gay and lesbian journalists, did you feel you had any recourse to fight that discrimination?
FRANCE: No, I knew that I had no recourse. At the time, there was no gay rights law in New York City. That came later. There was nobody for me to complain to. I was simply out of a job. Also, I was being told very clearly that there would be no job for me in journalism. There were very few openly gay journalists at the time. I think there were two. One was at the New York Post, and he was protected by the union there. Once you got in the union, you were protected from the kind of hostilities that I was experiencing. And I hadn’t yet been at the paper long enough to get into the union. That’s what they were doing there with this kind of gatekeeping, to make sure that they were able to figure out who was queer and who wasn’t, before union eligibility. The New York Times had no openly gay journalists at it. The Wall Street Journal had no openly gay journalists. The only other one that I knew of at the time was at the San Francisco Chronicle. That was Randy Shilts. It was an entire field that was foreclosed to queer people, and it was just one of many.
MW: I understand the deep-seated bias that existed, but what rationale did people have for caring if a gay or lesbian wrote a news article? It doesn’t make any sense.
FRANCE: Right? What do they care if somebody is transgender while embalming a dead body? Hatred just doesn’t make any sense except to people who are hating.
MW: Last week, Russian voters approved a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, in addition to all other sorts of referendums that they “approved.” Based on what you know and what you’re hearing from people in Russia and in Chechnya, is this a real gut punch? Is it something that they were expecting and are prepared to keep fighting?
FRANCE: Well, my friends in Russia just feel entirely hopeless, unfortunately. The vote tally, as it were, is packed with fraud. We’ve seen it in city after city, in exit polls. In Saint Petersburg, for example, the majority of voters [polled] said that they voted against the constitutional amendments. However, the city itself, in the final official tally, was something like 70 percent in favor of the constitutional amendment. This is really not a case of the Russian electorate going against queer people. It’s really a case of the Kremlin just taking over the role of autocracy and dictatorship, and dressing it up as the public will. That’s what has people so dispirited.
MW: That’s a really curious thing, too, that it does look from the outside like it’s the public will. It looks like Putin’s side has won over the hearts and minds of the people in the Russian federation. That they really just do believe that queer people don’t deserve civil rights, certain human rights. Is that how it feels walking around Chechnya, for example, is there a sense of people being unwelcoming to any LGBTQ presence?
FRANCE: Well, I guess it depends on where you are in the country. Moscow and Saint Petersburg are modern cities. They have gay clubs. They have gay social and political organizations. There’s a queer presence that you don’t see in other places. But nationwide polls tell us that almost half of Russians find gay people to be totally unacceptable. That is because they’ve been fed this propaganda against the community by state-controlled media. Activism has no purchase on state controlled media, because it’s state-controlled media. That is almost every media outlet in the country. The very few that are Russian-based that have a kind of liberal worldview are so marginalized by the political structure that they have very little impact.
You could do a major investigation, as the newspaper Novaya Gazeta did in 2017, and reveal these atrocities in Chechnya that are being undertaken by the government against the queer community. And the rest of the country will know almost nothing about it. It doesn’t create a wave of followup stories by other newspapers and television outlets, because it’s not part of the approved national narrative. It’s the lone voice in the distance with a very small readership, and it just doesn’t get picked up.
MW: In that environment, how did you find your way into telling the story in Welcome to Chechnya?
FRANCE: I made contact with a very small group of activists that have very quietly constructed this vast underground network of safe houses and pipelines to be able to rescue queer Chechens from certain death, and try and find ways to get them out of the country. I asked them if I could come and film their work, and they said yes. I went immediately into the underground when I arrived in Moscow, and traveled in and out of that network for much of the next 18 months. My view of life in Russia is really constrained. My view of queer life in Russia is constrained by my having only experienced it from inside these cloistered safe houses.
MW: Did you have any opportunity to involve authorities here or in Russia? Was it necessary to contact the state department, the embassy, or anyone like that?
FRANCE: I only did reporting to the state department after I finished my reporting inside Russia. I wanted to confirm that the U.S. had not received any of the people who were seeking extraordinary visa invitations from foreign countries. And they confirmed that, that there were no people brought in through this network who were allowed to come into the U.S., while countries like Canada and others, with a much more liberal view of immigration, generously extended invitations to scores and scores of people to come and put down roots, and to join local queer communities, and rebuild their lives. I didn’t work at all with the Russian government either. Because my story, and the story that is captured in the film, is really about what ordinary Russians were taking on themselves, in the absence of any government response to the revelation that these atrocities were taking place. I was drawn to that story because it seems so reminiscent of the stories that I’ve read about the Nazi regime, where it was not possible to petition the regime for protection or help. But instead, people had to take on that work themselves.
MW: In regards to our government granting asylum to refugees from Chechnya, do you see that changing?
FRANCE: Not with this administration, no. I see an absolute urgency to change the administration. Then to begin to piece together the federal government, which has been so gutted. And then to reconsider this concept of “What is America?” I think we’re being invited to do that by the Black Lives Matter folks in really powerful ways.
MW: Making this film entailed being entrusted not only with the subjects’ stories, but in some cases their identities and their lives. How did you approach the responsibility of telling their stories, and being mindful of the risks that they were facing?
FRANCE: I knew it was a big ask. It was something that we all took on very earnestly. In a way, we had to become part of the system to protect their lives. It wasn’t just a simple matter of reporting, the way most of my work has been, but about joining — well, embedding really — in the world that they found themselves in. Learning the security challenges, and then taking those to an extreme. We had security advisors who worked with us on every aspect of the project, including how to film in public places where, if it were discovered we were filming, we could endanger the operations that were being taken. We had a special group that advised us on data security, how to handle that footage, how to move that footage out of the country, how to edit that footage without it being at all susceptible to Russian hacking, for example. We had to build an air-gapped edit suite. In fact, our whole studio was air-gapped.
MW: What does that mean?
FRANCE: Well, that meant that none of the computers were connected to the internet, nor had they ever been connected to the internet. They were internet-naïve computers. The footage never touched a computer that had ever touched the internet. We knew we couldn’t be penetrated from state actors, which is what we were concerned about anyway.
Traditionally, you would send your footage out for numerous tasks — transcription, for example — which we couldn’t do. We brought in transcribers who we vetted. Every member of the crew was vetted for their background. We didn’t allow any internet-connected devices, such as iPhones or mobile phones or Google Watches, or Apple Watches, or anything like that into our edit suite. So that we could feel confident that we weren’t inadvertently exposing anybody to any further peril. It was very cumbersome. It certainly extended the length of time it took to make the film. But it was part of our commitment to make sure that nothing we did would have any negative impact on the lives of the people who entrusted their stories in us.
MW: It sounds like almost a military operation. Having survived the plague years, did that help prepare you for this?
FRANCE: No, it didn’t. What it helped me prepare for, although not truly effectively, were the years that I spent doing war reporting in the ’80s and ’90s. I’ve worked in conditions of danger in the past where I had to be very careful about revealing what I was doing. But literally nothing can prepare you for the kind of paranoia that’s necessary for working inside Russia. For that, I needed really to lean on my Russian crew. The majority of people who worked on the film are Russian, most of them Russian exiles living in the States. They grew up in that paranoia. They were able to check me when I didn’t immediately understand the need for that kind of suspicion.
We talk about military operations, but our security walked us through rehearsals before every operation. These are literal rehearsals. What will you do if this happens? What if this happens? They will begin with a questionnaire, sometimes 10, 12, 15 pages about the mission. Then we would create the narrative that I would present if I was caught, about what I was doing and why I was doing it. Only one time did we need to actually call upon that alternative script. That was as we were leaving the Chechen Republic with Anya, who is in the film. I was in the car behind her, the security car. We were just following behind, with no acknowledged connection to the car in front of us. We were stopped at a checkpoint where my American passport raised alarms. I was detained and questioned about what I was doing there. All of the rehearsal made it seamlessly possible to argue my way out of detention. It really paid off.
MW: Writing about the AFI Docs Festival recently, I was struck by how of-the-moment some of the selections were. The festival had, for example, a film about the female officers of the Minneapolis police department, which is a really important movie to show right now. It seems documentary filmmakers have to anticipate where the story they’re covering might land by the time they’re finished. With that in mind, how do you account for what the story is going to be by the time your work is done?
FRANCE: That’s a really good question. This is my first documentary shot in real-time, a sort of vérité documentary. I knew that what I was studying was the activists, and their lives, and their motivations for taking on such a dangerous assignment without any previous experience doing such harrowing work. I knew that there would be a story in that no matter what the outcome was. Then for me, it was a matter of spending enough time with them so that I could understand their outcomes, and I could understand their challenges. And I could understand what it was like to be them. I knew there would be an answer to this question no matter what they were able to accomplish in this field.
MW: Speaking of outcomes, do you have any updates on Anya, or Bogdan and Maxim?
FRANCE: Anya is still a mystery. I’m hoping that the information that we have is accurate, that says that she’s safe and alive, and that she remains that way. But I don’t have any contact with her, unfortunately. Bogdan and Maxim are still living in the shadows in Europe. They’re moving from place to place. They have to keep moving in order to keep from being discovered. That has meant that they’ve suffered some additional dangers because of the shutdowns and border crossing controls that have been put in place because of the pandemic.
MW: What about people in the film whose identities are clearly visible, David Isteev and Olga Baranova in Moscow. How will this film coming out affect their work?
FRANCE: Well, Olga was forced to leave Russia, as chronicled in the film. David remains there with his colleagues doing the work. Both of them felt that it was important for them to show their faces in the film as a way to increase their physical safety, to make them into public figures in a way that made it less likely that anything very severe could happen to them, without repercussions. For them, it was an act of self-defense that caused them to want to keep their original faces in the film. In addition, they wanted to let the world know about the work that they’re doing. Because they really need the support of world leaders to continue to offer avenues for the people who have survived this atrocity in Chechnya to find homes in new countries. They need political partnership with Western countries to allow them to do it. They also need you and me to know about the work that they’re doing, so that we can write about it, tell the world about it, and support it. They need financial support. This film has become a tool for them to let the world know how much help that they really need, that they can’t do this alone. They can’t do it just within the queer community.
As David says at one point in the film, he and the Russian LGBT network and the Moscow Community Center, working together, have been able to organize most of the international queer organizations to be part of this underground railroad. When they move people from one country to another, they hand them to representatives of the queer organizations in those countries. Those people help the refugees set themselves up safely. They help them begin their work to integrate into their new societies, into their new cultures. They do everything necessary to keep them safe while they’re there. This is really a story of the queer community on a global level, who are responding in very direct and increasingly dangerous ways to protect the people who are being hunted around the globe by the Chechen authorities.
MW: I understand that it will help David and Olga to raise their profiles. But on the other hand, in the film, you cover pop singer Zelim Bakaev, who it seemed was targeted because he had such a high profile. What has happened to him?
FRANCE: He is presumed dead, unfortunately. His profile unfortunately was only in Chechnya and not outside of Chechnya. He sings in Chechen. That meant that there was very little in the way of international outcry around his disappearance.
MW: More people will know about it now, which is…
FRANCE: Which is unfortunately too late for him.
MW: But hopefully it will be in time for someone else. What do you hope this film accomplishes?
FRANCE: The main thing I hope is that it helps the activists continue the conversations that they need to have, in order to be able to continue their work. The essential part of their work is to continue saving lives. That’s what I hope it will do.
Welcome to Chechnya is now available on HBO Max. Visit www.hbo.com.
To reach the Russian LGBT Network hotline, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
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