David France

Welcome to Chechnya reveals the atrocities of the anti-LGBTQ campaign in Chechnya. For the first time since the gay purge started in 2017, American director David Franceallows the activists and refugees to tell their stories. In aninterview with LGBT World Beside, the documentary makershares his experiences while filming undercover in one of the most secluded places in the world.

Within two weeks after you read an article in The New Yorker about the situation in Chechnya, you were on aflight to Moscow. What was it that urged you to take action?

In April 2017 the anti-LGBTQ campaign in Chechnya was revealed. I thought that it had ended when the news came out, but then in July, journalist Masha Gessen reported in The New Yorker that the problems in Chechnya were unabated. A network of activists had been forced to pull together to respond as individuals, because the government was doing nothing, and the international community was ineffective.That’s what moved me to want to tell the story in a bigger way, to try and add my voice to the voice of the activists who are doing the work in Russia, to bring attention to what they were undertaking.

What were you expecting from your trip to Russia? Was it as you imagined? 

I know I was expecting to meet people who had experienced unspeakable suffering and torture, but I wasn’t prepared for there to be such danger. The degree that they were being hunted even in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, and elsewhere in the safe house network, was shocking to me. I realized that we were in a very dangerous situation. In fact, their lives wouldn’t necessarily be better even when they reached more liberal capitals elsewhere in the world. This kind of vast Chechen diaspora was an ongoing threat and will be an ongoing threat as long as Ramzan Kadyrov is still in power.

What was the mental state the refugees were in when you first met them? Were they open to working with you fromthe beginning?

All of the people who are in the film were very open to my efforts, to allow them a way to tell what happened to them and to reveal the crimes that were going on. But there are many more people in the shelter system than you see in the film.

After everything that they had already been through, some felt it essential to focus on their own security and safety for the time being. Others chose not to be in the film because their stories were so particular that there was no way to tell themwithout revealing their identity. And I respected their decisions.

I also found a large number of people who were severely traumatized. Everybody I met suffered an extreme degree of post trauma syndrome. One person you see in the film, was so dissociative that he attempted suicide, and that was not even ashock to people that somebody would respond in such a way to all that they’ve been through. I know that most of the people who have been through that shelter system will struggle for the rest of their lives with what has happened to them.

You went to great lengths to protect the identities of the people you worked with. You were editing in a windowless bunker in LA and you never let the original footage even touch a computer that had ever been connected to the Internet. Why did you find it necessary to take such extreme measures?

We understood that the opposition to our work, if people knew about our work, would come from the state. That’s why we had to take precautions, given our knowledge of what the state of Russia is capable of. We know that the security apparatus in Russia is for the most part aligned with the security forces in Chechnya. We have seen them work together to invade the safe house network and to detain Chechen survivors on the streets elsewhere in Russia. That’s why we felt that it was essential that we barricade our work in such a way, that electronic surveillance would not be able to access our footage.

We edited offline in New York, ‘air gapped’ as we say, and we did our postproduction work and video effects for the face doubling technique in a bunker in Los Angeles, so we had a bunker on both coasts.

How did you come up with the face swapping technologyas a solution to protect people’s privacy?

I couldn’t use the faces or names of the people who agreedfully to share their stories, and I promised them that I would find some way to disguise them while also trying to find a way to express their humanity through that disguise. There was no easy way to do that, so we went into a long period of research and development to see what new technologies were available to us. That’s when we discovered a way to digitally transfer someone else’s face over the faces of the people who are in the film, in a way that doesn’t change what that face is doing, it just changes how that face looks. This has not been done before.

It is a brand-new tool for documentary filmmakers and for human rights workers who try to bring witness to this kind of disaster as it’s unfolding throughout the world. It brings an audience member into the emotional journey of the people who agreed and wanted to tell their story. And I think in a really important way, it gives them back their own histories. It gives them back that power to be able to talk about these crimes without further endangering themselves and that was my goal.

The process took some time and it was certainly costly, but it was my commitment to the people in the film that I would protect them to a degree that even they felt comfortable. I followed up with everybody I could still find after this 18-month period of filming and their 18-month period of fleeing,and I showed them the work that I was doing for their approvals. I showed them all the scenes as we’ve completed them and made sure that there was nothing being revealed in any way that would make their lives more uncomfortable than they already were. 

Whose faces did you use as a disguise?

The faces you see belong mostly to LGBTQ-activists from New York, who had already been engaged in either protesting the horrors in Chechnya or had been active in other LGBTQ refugee movements. We recruited them through Instagram and by going to demonstrations and meetings of political organizations. We tried to find faces that were different from the way that Chechens looked, so that it would add an additional layer of confusion to people who might be trying to figure out who they are.

Were the authorities aware of what you were doing when you were working on this film?

I never had a formal conversation with anybody, or informally even, from the government about the work that I was doing. I was detained at one point in Chechnya while I was filming,but they did not know I was filming, and they didn’t suspect it.So, I was able to be released very soon after without drawing any suspicion.

What did you tell them that you were doing there?

I was with two Russian activists and I explained that I was anAmerican football fan, especially of the Egyptian football team. The World Cup had just played in Russia and Egyptians stayed in and traveled through Chechnya. My explanation was that I was following the footprints of the Egyptian football team. It took me a lot of memorizing of Egyptian football, likenames and scores, and I carried a lot of tourist information with me about the North Caucasus, so I had a deep enough cover story.

Why is Kadyrov targeting the queer people specifically?What is it that makes him so fearful of that minority group, in your opinion?

I’ve never been smart enough to explain irrational hatred and I certainly would need multiple psychiatric degrees to explain Ramzan Kadyrov and his multiple problems. We know that he has waged deadly campaigns against other people as well, butthis is the first time we have seen him attempt a liquidation campaign of this sort where his intention – which is pathological – is to identify, roundup and eliminate all known LGBTQ Chechens. His belief – if you can call it that – is that in doing so, he will cleanse the blood of the Chechen people of the scourge and scandal of homosexuality.

It’s not a good time to be queer anyplace in the world really,there are 70 countries where it’s illegal, in 8 of those it’s punishable by death. There are growing numbers of parts of the world, Poland for example, where municipalities in a third of the country have declared themselves to be gay-free zones and it’s creeping through the West. It’s a bad time to be a sexual minority, but at no other place in the world and no other time since Nazi Germany has anybody undertaken this kind of a genocidal campaign against queer citizens.

How do you think or hope that your work will help the queer community of Chechnya?

My goal was to make sure that the world was talking about this and that in talking about it, it would bring our governments to be more responsive. The people who participated in the film want western governments to unite their voices to demand an end to this and to demand that Kadyrov and his deputies be brought on charges for these crimes.

In some ways, it’s already working. We showed the film to lawmakers in the US, in Washington and Congress, and within 72 hours the US State Department issued – finally, after three years – sanctions against Kadyrov and his leadership. That’s the kind of thing it’s going to take to bring an end to this atrocity, and some form of justice for so many people who have survived it and for those who weren’t able to survive.

Kadyrov keeps denying that queer people exist in Chechnya, but there is video footage of people getting beaten up and abused for being gay. You took thosetrophies they made while they were abusing queer people, and you turned it around by presenting them asevidenceWhy was it so important for you to include thoseviolent images in your work?

I wanted to be very plain to anybody who sees the film of what’s happening there. The fact that the very forensic evidence of what’s happening was produced by the people who are committing the crimes, was essential for me to get out to the world. To show that while they’re denying this is happening, they are not only just continuing to do it, but they are celebrating it in a way by recording it and sharing these recordings among themselves.

I don’t bring these recordings out easily. I was very concerned about doing it, about what impact that would have on the people who watched, but I want the film to implicate everybody involved. This outrage that’s happening in Chechnya is our problem. Once we know about it, once we see it, I’m hoping that we will all act.

We are all witnesses to what’s currently happening in Chechnya. Now that we know about these horrors, we have to carry the news stories forward and make sure that we keep talking about it, make sure that we keep bringing in more witnesses to this and that’s what that footage invites us to do.

People who want to do something after watching your documentary can go to the website that is linked to the film, where you have outlined four goals of ways people can help. Have you seen an increase of people volunteeringto help since HBO has premiered ‘Welcome to Chechnya’ in some countries?

Absolutely, we get contacted all the time by people who want to do something very specific. “What can I do that would make a difference? How can I join this movement?” 

The first most easy thing we say to people is: you can help the organizations that are on the ground doing the work. Theydesperately need the help, especially now during the pandemictheir work is more difficult, more expensive and more dangerous than ever before. We give several suggestions to people on how they can help. Those suggestions were all developed not by us and the film crew, but by the people who are doing the work. We held a listening tour with all the organizations that are central to this campaign and asked: “What do you need this film to produce for you? Let us find a way to help you do that.”

You spent 18 months filming in Moscow and even Chechnya. What were your impressions of both areas?And what did you think of the Chechen culture?

I was in Chechnya only briefly and it’s a very closed part of the world. It’s very hermetic, a place where not many Russians travel, it is part of their country and even they don’t find their way there often. It’s a place that is heavily controlled by the government and by the security forces, so you have a sense there, as an outsider, of a very suspicious life. You have a feeling there that everyone feels the sense of being watched and policed. It is similar to other hermetic places in the world,I think of North Korea for example: places where it’s just a given that suspicion defines public life. It was a place where it felt almost hard to breathe, because of that kind of repression, but I was not there long enough to tell you anything about the culture itself.

The place is physically beautiful, it was just a stunning typography to witness. But it is hard not to see through all of that to the awful history that has been visited upon the place not just by Kadyrov and other Chechen leaders, but by Russian leaders over many years. It’s a land that has a very lengthy sad past.

And what about MoscowYou were there for a longer period of time. Did you feel like you could move more freely, or did you encounter difficult situations?

I did move more freely in Russia. I don’t have any evidence that I was under any sort of observation. I never encountered any Russian authorities, as I said earlier, who might have given away any sort of knowledge of what I was doing. I was there on the tourist visa, I had friends in Moscow and Saint Petersburg that I visited, so I had certainly enough tourism activities while I was there to sustain the fiction of my being there as a tourist. It was my first time in Russia and I don’t speak the language, so I was a little isolated from ordinary life there as well. 

To get more into the work of evacuating the queer people from Chechnya: Igor Kochetkov from the Russian LGBTnetwork said that the persecution of queer people in Chechnya has never stopped since the first reports, but that its scale has changed. What did you learn about this change in scale?

The original impetus behind the purge was the discovery by the Chechen authorities that there were gay people, that theyknew one another, and they communicated through apps on their telephone, specifically the Hornet dating app. The authorities began to use that in the first month of this campaign to find connected networks of gay people. The gay people soon realized that they had to abandon those circles of communication. There’s been a lot of serious work in the community to make themselves less discoverable, whichmakes it much more difficult for large numbers of people to be rounded up simultaneously.

That doesn’t mean people aren’t being discovered, it’s happening all the time. There are people I know today who are being held, who are not safe, whose fates are not yet decided and that’s an ongoing problem. It’s not that the Chechen authorities have stopped looking for LGBTQ Chechens, it’s that they’ve become harder to find. By my estimation there are some 40,000 LGBT folks hiding in plain sight in Chechnya. By hiding I mean they are often marrying members of the opposite sex, they are emulating heteronormative behaviors and family structures in daily lives. By doing so, they hope it will keep them from being discovered.

There is nothing like a gay community in Chechnya, or that you would describe as a gay community in any other setting,because it’s just too dangerous to have that kind of communication among one another. We’ve seen people who created a comfort zone around their identities being punished in brutal ways.

What would you advise to queer people who are in Chechnya right now and who want to escape theirsituation, but don’t really know where to start?

There’s a hotline that people know about and it’s widely circulated for people to call in case they need to be rescued.But a problem that is of this magnitude can’t be solved by rescuing everybody. The problem has to be solved by stopping Kadyrov.

You cannot do a hand by hand rescue of 40,000 people.Keeping in mind that LGBTQ-people are born every day in Chechnya and elsewhere, even saving 40,000 people today won’t do anything to stop the arrival of new targets of this hatred. So what needs to be done is fundamental and that’s to change the regime and to bring Kadyrov to justice.

It’s hard for me to speak to the people who have chosen to stay. Because it’s such a closed community, it’s hard to leave there, just emotionally and psychologically: to leave behind your homeland, to leave behind your language, to leave behind every relative you’ve ever had. It’s a clan-basedsociety: relatives are one of the most important parts of that community. To say to those 40,000 people you must leave there in order to survive, is to say to them you must cut off a very important part of yourself in order to rescue this other very important part of yourself, and that is such a cruel thing to suggest to people.

When I came out in the US, there were no laws to protect us. We were universally reviled and I had to leave my family andmy home, but I didn’t leave my culture and my family wasn’tcoming after me. The perversion that Kadyrov has brought to this, is to put such inescapable pressure on family members to bring back people, that it perverts the whole notes in the family.

When someone does decide to escape Chechnya,evacuating women is very different from evacuating men. This is something that Olga Baranova, one of the activists we get to know in your documentary, has talked about. Can you explain why it’s so much more difficult for queer women to escape from the Chechen culture?

All women in Chechnya are subject to a form of servitude,that makes it almost entirely impossible for women to get out on their own. When women travel on their own, it brings intense suspicion. Many of the women whose stories I have followed from the beginning in 2017, who tried to get out,were turned back by checkpoints or even by the taxi driver, who would bring them back if he had some suspicion about what they were doing.

This has left it to the activists to actually physically rescue women in Chechnya much more often than they’ve had to rescue men. This type of operation increases risks all around,for the rescuers as well as for the young women who are trying to make their escape. It causes family members to pursue the rescuers as kidnappers or as thieves, for having taken what amounts to as a piece of property from them. Sothere are multiple levels of difficulty for women to find their way to freedom, especially for lesbian women. If there’s already a suspicion of their sexual orientation, then their attempts to make it into Russia – and then maybe even into Europe or elsewhere – are more quickly policed and they are more urgently pursued as they’re making their escapes.

Olga Baranova sounded quite hopeful in a recent interview about a new project they were setting up specifically to evacuate women.

They have issued a report recently about queer women from the North Caucasus, who are doing some important work on advocating for a global receptiveness to the plight of queer women in Chechnya. They are also working on the ground with secret partners in the Republic to bring women out before they are identified. They find ways to protect them while they’re in Russia waiting for invitations from other governments, and then finance their trips out of the country.So, their organization exists, it’s growing, it’s being supported by the Moscow Community Center for LGBT+ Initiatives and that does leave me hopeful.

In fact, all of this leaves me with a measure of hope just to know about the commitment of the activists to doing this workand rescuing strangers, people they have never met. They have created this massive infrastructure that reaches every part of the globe, that serves as a pipeline to get people from Chechnya and Dagestan and elsewhere, to places where they can actually begin to build their new lives.

Maybe under new names, they can try and find comfort. Not just with the history that they have been through and the ways that they’ve been betrayed by their government and by their families, but also with the stirrings of their own hearts. So that they can find a place where they can live fully, while exploring their own sense of self. And that makes me really happy and hopeful.

A very important part of your film is Maxim LapunovAt the end of the film his identity is revealed and you show his face as he files a lawsuit against his own government because they failed to protect him. Unfortunately, he didn’t get the justice he was seeking and after he exhausted every possible legal way in Russia, he has filed new lawsuit in Europe. Do you have any news on how he’s doing and how the lawsuit is coming along?

The lawsuit got stuck in the clouds of the pandemic, so it’s moving slowly. There are a couple of arms to his legal approach through the European courts. One is to pursue remedies through the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE, and they have investigated his claim and substantiated it, and even filed their response for Russia to counter. Russia was meant to meet a deadline in March but has not yet filed its response. 

The OSCE complaint system has always been honored by Russia in the past, so it’s expected that they will do as they are obliged to do by covenants which they’ve signed, and that they will respond. If there’s a finding against Russia and in favor of Maxim and his family, then Russia will be under the obligation to investigate his claim thoroughly and to bring charges where merited. If they don’t do that, then it’s up to Europe to make the next move.

Maxim’s case has also been filed in the European court for human rights and that is proceeding as well, but it has also entered the grey area of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, unfortunately, Maxim and his family are relegated to a life in the shadows. They are not able to work and they don’t feel safe going out in public. They’re living in hiding somewhere in Europe and always try to keep their locations changing. They are still under the protective watch of the Russian LGBT-network and Human Rights Watch and otherorganizations, like the committee against torture that brought the case in the first place. Maxim and his family have sacrificed a great deal in order to be able to try and bring this criminal case to fruition. There are ways to support him directly through our website as well. 

Do you think the international community will be able tobring Kadyrov to justice in the near future?

As Tanya Lokshina, who works for Human Rights Watch covering the North Caucasus, puts it: if Putin told Kadyrov to stop, Kadyrov would stop, and international pressure can force Putin to say that to Kadyrov. That is the first step. This must stop.

The next step is criminal justice and that could take a lifetime.In the international court of opinion, Kadyrov has already been tried and convicted. He is not able to travel to most parts of the world, he’s really an isolated tiny dictator in that small corner of Russia. As his crimes multiply, I hope that he’ll even have trouble traveling in Russia itself.

One of his most recent crimes involves a young Chechen man who was made to give an apology to Kadyrov for being a moderator in an anti-Kadyrov group chat. He was forced into making an apology video where he is seen naked. After hegives the apology, he is then forced to rape himself with a glass bottle. The horror of that is just unimaginable and now even voices within Chechnya that are condemning Kadyrov for having done that are starting to be heard, and there issomething really powerful about that. The man went too far years ago and he goes further every day. Somehow, he has to be stopped.

By Eva Davidova