Full donation information for our project on the site – gofundme.com
As the violence around Chechnya’s anti-LGBTQ+ purge continues, brave activists and organizations are fighting daily to create a safer world for queer Chechens. Harlem Khadzhiev, a co-founder of LGBT refugee support organization LGBT World Beside, writes about that fight here.
From 2012 to 2015, I was detained and blackmailed in Chechnya because I am gay. By the time I reached the border, other gays and lesbians from Chechnya were asking me for help. Also, journalists contacted me and asked me to help them get in touch with LGBT people from Chechnya. It was important for journalists to hear their stories firsthand and tell them to the general public. LGBT people from Chechnya are afraid to get in touch with journalists themselves. I have always helped journalists find contacts. Persuading my acquaintances from Chechnya to contact journalists was hard work. Many had to negotiate for a long time. I promised them that it would be safe for them. They were often intimidated and did not believe that security was possible beyond the borders of Chechnya.
I believe that the entire world should know what is happening to LGBT people in Chechnya. If we remain silent and are too afraid to discuss the terrible tortures and murders in Chechnya they may never end. The Chechen and Russian regimes successfully rally like-minded people. Many LGBT people fled Chechnya and Russia to save their lives and have become activists. We are in many different countries around the world. We help those who fled to Europe as much as possible.
Everything was new to me, and I did not know what to do. I did not know any English and Dutch. I always have to ask my friends to help me with the translation during meetings with representatives of parliament or other activists who are in Europe from other organizations. I cannot hire a translator for my team because we do not have enough money. Sometimes we have to travel by public transport without a ticket to refugee camps to meet with new arrivals. Communicating with refugees is very important so that they are not distressed and feel abandoned. Our activists often invite refugees into their homes, pay for their travel and food.
In 2018, we created our own LGBT refugee support organization and named it LGBT World Beside. It was very difficult. As former refugees, we know how to help each other. We have not forgotten about the horrors we endured in Chechnya. We were humiliated, insulted, blackmailed. We were considered to be less than human and treated like an animal. We were confined to basements and called vile names. We did not know how to express our feelings and be genuinely ourselves. Truly, we have not recovered. In Chechen society, there is no place for LGBT people. Fleeing our country gave us profound sorrow. We did not want to move, but we wanted to survive. Moving was the only way. It was very painful and scary to leave our families and start our lives all over again.
Today, I am still afraid that I am being watched. In some European countries with a large Chechen diaspora, our refugees have to remain very quiet. I still cannot fully enjoy the present and forget the horrors of my past life. We are glad to have refugees apply to LGBT World Beside for assistance and to help them. We have big plans for the future. We solve our problems together. We deserve a place in this world like everyone else. My friends are helping us now and we are as one family. However, we do need more support.
Full donation information for our project on the site – gofundme.com
From Academy Award-nominated director David France (How to Survive a Plague, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson) comes Welcome to Chechnya, a powerful and eye-opening documentary about a group of activists risking their lives to confront the ongoing anti-LGBTQ persecution in the repressive and closed Russian republic of Chechnya.
With unfettered access and a commitment to protecting anonymity, this documentary exposes Chechnya’s underreported atrocities while highlighting a group of people who are confronting brutality head-on. The film follows these LGBTQ activists as they work undercover to rescue victims and provide them with safe houses and visa assistance to escape persecution. Welcome to Chechnya is a Public Square Films production, directed by David France and produced by Alice Henty, Joy A. Tomchin, Askold Kurov and David France. With informational support LGBT World Beside.
Filmmaker David France deployed pioneering VFX in order to disguise subjects whose lives were threatened by a hostile homophobic culture.
One key role that documentarians play is to bring back into clear view stories that have, for whatever reason, vanished from the headlines. World premiering on January 26 in the Sundance FIlm Festival’s Documentary Competition, the HBO Documentary FIlm “Welcome to Chechnya” is a chilling docu-thriller that exposes a humanitarian crisis that demands to be brought back into the public eye.
Back in early 2017, Oscar nominee David France (“How To Survive A Plague”) read some horrific articles about the largely Muslim Russian federal republic of Chechnya’s crackdown on homosexuals, who were hunted, imprisoned, tortured and even killed. “There was press and pressure in Europe,” he said in a telephone interview. “In the States we were distracted by Washington. Our news attention has become very shallow and the story drifted out of headlines quickly.”
Without a global response to save gays whose lives were threatened in their home country, “I learned that the queer community in Russia had pulled together… to get people out of Chechnya to safety,” said France, “not to Russia. They had to get people out of the country. They managed to put into effect a vast underground railroad, like a French Resistance in World War II, rescuing and saving people.”
France started filming in August 2017, looking for characters to provide a spine for his movie among many remarkable stories of gay Chechens who “not only found safety in this underground network, but found comfort in their new countries,” said France, “and began to understand and embrace their lives as LGBTQ people, something they had no model for back in Chechnya. The idea of a gay sensibility, of a community, was anathema to them initially. To be brought into this incredibly tender and protective world was really eye-opening to them.”
Eventually, France focused on two stories of those fleeing from Chechnya as well as two of their rescuers. He found one man just as he was entering the system, trying to reunite with his boyfriend and his family, who was considering taking legal action against the people hunting him around the globe.
But France had to solve one serious issue with filming this unfolding narrative. “I was not the first person to go in as a reporter to try and tell that story,” he said. “What I and all the other reporters found were people running away who were too frightened to allow their stories be told. They knew it was not enough to get away. This isn’t a campaign to send into exile queer Chechens. This is an ethnic cleansing of a sort. This is an effort to liquidate LGBTQ Chechens, as a way to cleanse the blood of the Chechen people. Even should they arrive in the West in Paris or Toronto or Berlin, if it were known they were still alive, they would be pursued. They are living constantly in the shadows, and only allow people to film them in the shadows.”
Alex Gibney and other filmmakers have hired actors to speak the words of subjects they want to protect. And others have sat in darkened rooms with their voices disguised. France wanted to show his subjects’ faces as they recounted what they had been through, from fear of being hunted to capture and imprisonment and torture. “I promised them I would disguise them,” France said.
And so the director dove into a six-month R & D period, trying multiple approaches. He reviewed the ways to preserve their facial reactions, from rotoscoping and animation to filtering and overlaying systems. Some would not render his subjects sufficiently disguised, “or made them caricatures of themselves that would allow people who knew them well to recognize them,” he said. “I did not want to stylize them to the point of limiting the humanity they presented. I didn’t want to interpret through an artist’s pen. I wanted to find it and hold it, the highest standard of disguise, so even their mother won’t know who they are.”
France wanted to avoid having the VFX disconcert the viewer. “I worried about the audience’s ability to accept the disguise and not be distracted by it,” said France, who finally sought help from an expert in the Uncanny Valley, a professor at Dartmouth who specializes in human connectedness and runs an empathy lab. He asked her “to find the approach that be the most engaging and least disruptive.” She enrolled a formal scientific study using her institutional review board.
The winner, the approach that scored the best — identical to an undisguised face — was face replacement. This technique had never been used in a film before. “It is an inversion of deep fake technology used by journalists to manipulate images,” said France, like online video of Barack Obama calling for nuclear genocide, the technology that imposes a library image of a well-known person to map over somebody saying outrageous things. France asked 22 people — mostly queer activists in New York — to lend their faces as a physical shield to protect the people in the film.
The filmmakers brought the real people into a green-screen environment where VFX technicians ingested their faces and replicated the lighting circumstances of the subjects captured in the field. The VFX artists reduced their faces to an algorithm, then mapped them with deep-machine learning over the subjects in the film. “While all eye and mouth movement and facial tics belong to the original subject,” said France, “they are all being carried out beneath the skin of these volunteers. This could allow us to know their stories; it’s still them. We see the weight on their faces. It comes through, it’s unmanipulated, were picking up those expressions.”
France is grateful that “the activists lent their faces, which has given [the persecuted Chechens] the ability to tell their story. They were given the voice and a face that isn’t theirs to tell a story that is exclusively theirs. I wanted the face doubling to be part of the editorial narrative of the story, that they are so deeply afraid and thoroughly pursued that they have to hide their faces.”
Some voices were changed; some like Grisha (pictured above) were not. The technique works; the subjects who have new faces do have a slight halo framing them, which France wanted, to show that they needed the disguise. “I wanted you to feel the danger that that represented to their lives,” said France. “The differences between those being hunted and those who were helping them.”
The most upsetting scenes in the movie are trophy videos posted by Chechen perpetrators that celebrate violence against gay men and women. In order to show them, France also digitally altered these images — in one case, replacing one visage with his own face. “I couldn’t ask any of the activists to do that,” he said. The gut-wrenching sound of one man being raped was unaltered. “These were pieces of evidence gathered by the activists through their networks and interceptions, through people who have served as whistleblowers to get to the activists. It’s the proof of what is going on on the ground.”
At one dramatic moment in the movie, one person’s face is finally revealed. After years of secrecy, France showed the film to 40 of his cast and crew last week. “I heard the gasp when the mask comes off,” he said. “When I met him I didn’t know [he would go public with his story], and he didn’t know, so I was able to watch him wrestle with that. He elected to have the film unmask him in a way that will give him a greater level of protection and publicity. It’s going to be undeniable what he’s doing, risking his own life for this humanitarian undertaking.”
His rescuers are not disguised. Which proved to be a problem. At one heart-stopping juncture, Russian activist Olga felt such desperation “about this threatened girl who was coming through that airport someplace and being brought back into perilous dangers,” said France, “that Olga determined it was essential do something to try and find her. That entailed giving up personal data about herself that put her in danger.”
This forced Olga to leave the country with her young son. However, her heroic cohort David, based in St. Petersburg, is still commandeering the daring rescue work, flying in and out of Chechnya at great risk. “David was and is in imminent danger,” said France. “Two of the people are in the film were uncovered, and have also discovered how endangered they are. They are making their way out of the country.”
France hopes that the film will “shock the story back into the headlines,” he said. “The first thing is getting traction again in the media, not just in the U.S. but throughout the world. The activists on the ground need that exposure in order to continue their work. Also for their own security, they need to be known to the world to give themselves protection. I am hoping people will step up to support their work. I’m hoping the film will generate the political will, in capitals across the West, for making humanitarian parole visas available to the organizations on the ground to help people get out of there. Without official partnerships with governments around the world, they can’t find safe homes for the people they’re rescuing.”
Making the film was not without its dangers for France and his crack director of photography, dissident Russian filmmaker Askold Kurov, who had to sneak in and out of safe houses without giving the secret locations away. “We had no sound department,” said France. “We shot on a little Sony tourist 4K camera with a shotgun mic and one wireless lav that could be thrown into a bag, held under an arm, and with an iPhone 10.” The camera had a Bluetooth feature that allowed it to be manipulated and monitored by cel phone. “In public, Askold would hold the camera under his arm like a rolled-up newspaper and bury his nose in the cel phone as though he were looking at texts, and move his body to position the camera.”
As for bringing the Chechen perpetrators of these homophobic crimes to justice, that is still to be determined. One case has exhausted its appeals in the Russian domestic courts; charges against Russia should now be moved into European human rights courts.
HBO Documentary Film acquired rights to the film as the filmmakers were in the finishing stages of the expensive VFX work. After the Sundance world premiere, the movie will air on HBO in June.