Debuting June 30 on HBO, the new documentary Welcome to Chechnya chronicles the heroic actions of LGBTQ activists who work tirelessly to rescue victims from the brutal anti-LGBTQ campaign in the Russian republic of Chechnya. This emotional film brings to light the abuse and torture experienced by the victims and the danger involved in exposing the perpetrators. It is a film that should be watched by every person who cares about the LGBTQ community.
To learn more about the film, Terri Wilder spoke with its director, David France. France is an Oscar-nominated filmmaker, bestselling author, and an award-winning investigative journalist. His directorial debut, How to Survive a Plague, is an innovative and influential piece of storytelling and is regularly screened in university classrooms, community groups, and AIDS service organizations. His 2017 film The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, received rave reviews and won numerous festival prizes, including the Los Angeles Outfest Freedom Award and special grand jury recognition from the Sheffield International Documentary Festival.
Terri Wilder: So, David, how did you first hear about what was happening in Chechnya?
David France: I first heard about the atrocities in Chechnya the way most people did, by reading it in the newspaper in early 2017—April 2, I think—following an investigative report in a Russian independent newspaper called Novaya Gazeta that broke the story. It was a little complicated and confusing as to what was happening in there. There were no reporters on the ground to do investigations there.
It’s a very closed community in this republic of the Chechen federation in the south, but it operates in a very cloistered way. And then the story kind of quickly left the headlines. And in some way, I think I allowed myself to believe that the problem, once revealed, had been handled in some way. It wasn’t until over the summer [of 2017] that I realized that it was still ongoing, and some journalism was coming out about the ongoing problem there. Masha Gessen, the journalist from The New Yorker, had exposed the work of an underground railroad, basically, that was pulled together to try to rescue people and get them to safety immediately. After reading her reporting, then I booked a trip to Russia to meet the people who are running the safe house network and propose to them that I undertake a long period of embedding with them to tell their story.
TW: How did you find out who was actually coordinating this underground? I mean, I would think that that was pretty secret in and of itself.
DF: The names of the people were out already through interviews they had given to the press, so I knew who was running the shelter. What was secret was where the shelters were, and they kept moving shelters and moving people between shelters. And so I spoke to them about ways that I might be able to tell a story that would be sure not to reveal any secret or endanger anybody, and that’s how we began our collaboration with them, filming in this pipeline for 18 months.
TW: Your film really highlights the work of David Isteev and Olga Baranova. What can you tell me about them in terms of why they decided to get involved in saving the victims, while really potentially putting their own lives at risk?
DF: They are really interesting figures, people who were part of the movement, the LGBTQ movement in Russia, but had no experience doing this kind of harrowing and dangerous work. David had come to join the staff of the Russian LGBT network to run transgender programs for them. And he also ran their emergency response office, which typically responded to people who were either homeless because of domestic abuse situations or who had been assaulted by anti-gay thugs somewhere in Russia, but never was he called upon to do the kind of heroic work that he took on to actually rescue people in incredibly perilous situations. And yet he stood up and took on that responsibility, which is a phenomenal effort and a phenomenal sacrifice for him. And it’s impacted his entire life. And yet he continues to do it.
And Olga explains in the film that she had been a successful advertising executive in Russia. And when she and her wife decided to have a baby, she felt that it was important to build a life around the community in a way that would make their son feel less unusual. She wanted him to know other queer parents and to be connected with the community in a real intimate way. And so she helped start the queer community center in Moscow, literally a cultural facility and meeting place not unlike the community centers all across the U.S. And then she found herself called upon to build the network of shelters and operate them secretly to keep people safe. The two of them are figures of the type that we read about from the Nazi era, for example. People who were ordinary citizens and felt the call to do an extraordinary thing.
TW: At the beginning of the film, David does a great job of explaining the culture of Chechnya—the customs, the language—and he really talked about how this campaign started with a drug raid. That that’s kind of what broke the news of this torture and abuse happening. Can you talk about that a little bit?
DF: Gay people have been forcibly disappeared for many years in Chechnya. But what never occurred to the authorities there was that there was a community of gay people. And that was revealed in this drug raid, as you mentioned, where one of the men had his telephone seized, and they found on his phone intimate messages from others in the area that reveal to the security forces that there might be some kind of a community among them. And that began this hunt that they undertook, they tortured that man into revealing the names of the people that he’d been communicating with. Those people were brought in and tortured to reveal names of others, etc. And all of this began in December of 2016 and continues to this day. It became a declared—as they say—a blood cleansing of the Chechen ethnic minority, to hunt down and execute every LGBTQ Chechen that they can find.
TW: So the head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, was the one who actually said that this is a cleansing of the republic. And he’s also said, “There are no gays here.” What kind of person is he, to be over this kind of situation happening? Although it sounds like in some interviews he acts like he’s not involved.
DF: He’s kind of a classic madman, a classic totalitarian thug. He operates with some degree of autonomy within Russia, in an arrangement with Putin. And you’re right, he has openly declared this campaign. He makes no secret of it. And when he’s asked by Western journalists, and only has been asked once to account for it, he says that it is not going on. And he also then says that there are no queer Chechens—and if there were, he would wage a campaign against them. He is not at all chastened by global attention to what he’s doing. But nor does that global attention have any real teeth there. There is no demand for accountability from most heads of state. The U.S. government has said almost nothing about what’s going on there. And that was why it was important to make this film, to bring the evidence forward to say that this is happening—it can’t be denied—and to be witness to the lives of the people who are targeted by Kadyrov.
TW: In fact, in your film, you show the scene of where a gay man does go public about what happened to him. His name is Maxim Lapunov. You know, it was very emotional to watch this movie, I must be honest. You show scenes of some of the torture that happened to people. And really, there was no way to deny what was happening. It clearly took a lot of courage for him to come out publicly. And I’m just wondering if you know of others who have gone public after him?
DF: Maxim is the only person who has pressed criminal charges against his captors, torturers and against Chechen leadership. It’s an incredible act of bravery on his part to do that. And it put his life in even more danger. He is living in hiding now outside of Russia, and still pursuing the case, which got thrown out of Russian courts, who refused to investigate it. He moved it into the European Court for Human Rights, and that sparked an investigation by the OSCE, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. And that has begun a diplomatic pressure campaign to force Russia to begin to investigate his allegations. Aside from him, there has been no one else who has pressed charges. But there is one other man who suffered this kind of persecution, who now lives in Toronto, who has told his story publicly.
TW: One of the quotes—somebody said, “If I can’t protect myself now, then I’ll have to be running my whole life, and that’s not an option.” And the reality is that they’re going to be running for the rest of their lives, and the psychological stress of doing that is incredible. I remember thinking [while watching the film], how are people coping during this? How are they finding the will to live, knowing that they’re basically being hunted?
DF: It is an unimaginable burden that they carry and will carry for the rest of their lives. Not just having been singled out and tortured as they were, but having to be forced into exile. Not able to speak with their family. Not able to let anyone know where they are. If it became apparent to anybody that they were still alive, their family would come under direct pressure from the Chechen government to carry out the instructions of the government, this blood cleansing through what they call honor killings. And we’ve seen that happen over and over, where families have responded to that pressure by trying to trick their children into coming back home again and intercepting them as they’re running away. It’s a campaign that the families themselves have been somewhat agreeably drafted into. To come to the realization that your own family would have you executed towards some clan honor is something that a person could never recover from.
TW: As a gay man, were you ever worried about going to film? Did you ever have a situation when you felt unsafe or that you might need to stop filming and leave?
DF: The answer to that is basically no. There were a number of times in the safe house where we had information that made us believe that we would either be raided or that people would come looking for members of the Chechen population who are in many of the safe houses, and those were very tense evenings. But as part of our production, we had brought on three separate security firms to advise us on security for me and the crew for the work that we were doing and how we were doing it. And then digital security for how to protect the footage that we were shooting in ways that would make it undiscoverable by the Russian authorities if they were able to see, for example, a hard drive from us. And that preparation made me feel confident that I was well defended personally.
And we also hired, for every city that we traveled to, we hired on retainer criminal defense attorneys so that we always had a panic number to call. And, and luckily, we didn’t have to do that. We also put a tracker on my telephone so that my crew in New York knew where I was, or at least knew where my telephone was, at all times. And they knew where to expect my movements. And if I deviated from those movements, we had a plan in place for calling in the cavalry. Luckily, none of that stuff ever happened.
TW: At the end of the film, you thank a number of people. You thank people like Glennda Testone, who’s the executive director of The Center in New York City. And you also thank actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who was listed as an executive producer. How did he get involved?
DF: We reached out to the Human Rights Campaign once we finished our film and we were able to talk about it publicly. And Justin Mikita is one of the board members at Human Rights Campaign and very active internationally in defending international queer rights, and he is Jesse Tyler Ferguson’s husband. So first we went to Justin, and Justin brought Jesse, and the two of them became really essential producing partners for the completion of the film, which required so much work in post-production in the disguise work that we were required to innovate and also in helping bring the film to a larger audience.
TW: You mentioned earlier the different places that people had to be moved to. There were several countries that took people in. Canada was, in particular, a helpful country and ally to helping people get moved. But the United States was not one of them. And I think we all know about the president, and I can probably guess why that didn’t happen. But I’m wondering if you could speak to why didn’t the United States help these people that were being tortured and potentially murdered?
DF: I have no direct knowledge of why they didn’t. This story broke just as the Trump administration was coming in. And just as the Trump administration was declaring a kind of anti-Muslim immigration ban. And the fact that Chechens are largely Muslim probably is part of what figured into this, but also there was an immediate change in the administration, from the previous administration, in the way the White House worked with the LGBTQ community.
It was no longer an essential part of the State Department’s mission to speak in defense of LGBTQ rights as human rights, which was the policy under Obama and Secretary Clinton. So there was just no appetite really to stand up and help. And luckily, the activists on the ground in Russia found partners in other countries, at least for the first year or a year and a half of the work that they were doing, to be able to place most of their people. As you see at the end of the film, it becomes increasingly more difficult as their work goes on. And one of the things they’re hoping that this film will help them do is to pry open those doors again, with governments in Canada and Western Europe and Northern Europe and elsewhere that had been their partners initially, but this is still going on.
TW: Is David still involved? I know that Olga moved out of the country.
DF: Olga was forced into exile for the work that she was doing. Because she’s a mother, she was worried about this. And so she has sought asylum in the United States and was granted asylum. So queers from other parts of Russia are able to make that move much more easily than folks in Chechnya. She’s still doing the work—she’s still working as a director for the Moscow Community Center and still helping run centers. They’re now mostly focusing on lesbians and bisexual women and transgender women from Chechnya and from the Caucasus and other parts of the Federation, where they are endangered.
And David is still on the ground, and he’s still doing the same work today that he was doing when we were filming him, and he felt it was important to expose his face in the film to insulate him in some way from the risks that he was facing—that by making himself into a public figure, he might buy himself some time and some freedom from persecution, to continue to be able to help with this effort to bring people to safety.
TW: So my final question to you is, because this is still going on, is there anything that people can do now to help? No matter where they are in the world, people are going to see this film, because it premiers on HBO at the end of the month, on June 30. I am in New York City, but is there something I could do to help?
DF: We have brought in an impact campaign producer who worked with the activists and the survivors to help answer that question. And the very first thing that they want you to do is to help fortify the network in ways that will allow them to continue doing this not just dangerous, but also very expensive work and to also help support the criminal case around Maxim Lapunov and his allegations. So we have a button on our webpage, WelcomeToChechnya.com, where contributions can be made.
And the other thing you can do is just tell people to be a witness to what’s going on there. Do not let [President] Kadyrov and his partner in the Kremlin off the hook. Don’t allow them to say it’s not happening. We now see it. We now can witness what’s going on there. And as witnesses, we have an obligation to spread that word.