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'Welcome to Chechnya' documents horrifying persecution of LGBTQ Chechens

David France's HBO film shines light on the brutal campaign by officials in the semi-autonomous Russian region to imprison, torture and sometimes kill gay men.
Image: Olga Baranova, David Isteev, David France, Maxim Lapunov
Olga Baranova, from left, David Isteev, director David France, and Maxim Lapunov pose for a portrait to promote the film "Welcome to Chechnya" during the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, on Jan. 26, 2020.Taylor Jewell / AP

Within two weeks of David France reading an article in The New Yorker about the persecution of LGBTQ people in Chechnya, he was on a plane headed to Moscow.

It’s there that he first met the men and women who are featured in his new documentary “Welcome to Chechnya,” which premieres Tuesday on HBO. Ramzan Kadyrov, the president of the autonomous region of Russia, enacted a campaign in 2017 to find, imprison, torture and sometimes kill LGBTQ Chechens. Many who survived imprisonment have fled to Moscow, where they live in a safe house while seeking political asylum in other countries.

“What I learned from that story in The New Yorker was that the crimes that had been exposed earlier in the year hadn’t stopped, that nothing about the exposure in the world media, nothing about the expressions of outrage from European leaders, nothing about the meek, near silence from the Trump administration had done anything to slow the campaign that was being carried out by the leadership in Chechnya against the LGBTQ community,” France tells Variety. “And in fact, the Russian LGBTQ movement was left all alone to try and fashion some sort of response to what was going on there. And what they had put together was a search and rescue operation, like something that you would imagine in a World War II movie. And I was outraged that they were being forced to do this all on their own, and that the world wasn’t coming to pay attention to and put pressure against the Chechen government."

Among those in the film are David Isteev, who leads the rescue missions through the Russian LGBT Network and Olga Baranova, director of the Moscow Community Center for LGBT+ Initiatives. And then there’s Maxim Lapunov, who came to Moscow after being released from prison, where he was tortured for several weeks in 2017. Chechen authorities let him go because he is not ethnically Chechen.

“I was told that Maxim had agreed, even on the first conversation, to allow me to film him and that he was a charismatic character, a person who is an entertainer,” France said. “He made it his job to bring joy to people. When he was captured on the streets of Grozny, he had been selling balloon art. He was twisting balloons into these elaborate sculptures and selling them to people in front of the main mall in Grozny, Chechnya. That’s where he was seized by the security agents. So when I met him, he was an open, generous figure who allowed me to share his journey with him in the most profound way.”

In order to hide the identities of the residents in the safe house, France used technology to replace their faces with those of 22 LGBTQ activists in New York City. “What we did was to borrow from the world of deepfakes and find this social justice use for it,” he explained. “This technology allowed us to just stretch the faces…over the images that I shot in the film. The face moves exactly the same way. It smiles, it cries in exactly the same way, but it is somebody else’s face.”

While Lapunov’s identity is kept secret this way through most of the film, his real face is shown when he goes to court to sue the Russian government for failing to protect him from what his lawyers argue was unlawful arrest, detention, torture and discrimination.

There are many people not identified at all, but the doc includes disturbing and graphic footage of them being beaten and tortured. “When we learned of that footage, it was shocking,” France said. “It’s footage that was shot as trophies by the people who committed those crimes. They were keepsakes from these horrible events, and they were also deliverables. They were sent over WhatsApp groups up the chain of command, so that Ramzan Kadyrov would know that his orders are being carried out.”

“And when you saw the footage, I realized that I wanted to take that away from them, and turn their trophies into evidence,” he continued. “This is documented by the people who did it themselves, and those same people have denied in public forum that anything like this is happening there. And yet, here is proof.”

France spent about 18 months filming in Moscow and Chechnya. “Here is an ongoing crime against humanity that has not generated the outrage that it deserves,” said France, who earned an Oscar nomination for “How to Survive a Plague,” his 2012 directing debut about AIDS activists in the early days of the epidemic. “Without that outrage, it will keep going. But I also want people to know what the conditions are for LGBTQ people around the globe…There are still 70 countries where it’s a crime to be queer, and eight of those countries, and several other semi-autonomous regions like Chechnya is, consider it a crime worthy of the death penalty.”

As international borders are closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the activists in Moscow need even more help. “What was a very expensive proposition has become even more expensive. Keeping people in hiding, taking care of people, keeping them safe and fed, and with medical care for this long extended period, while they’re still struggling with foreign governments to try to keep open that back door to humanitarian parole visas,” France said. “And also to support Maxim Lapunov and his family in their lawsuit. Because they are still in safe houses, and they are still pursuing this suit…There’s no telling how long that battle’s going to last, but they’re in it for the long run.”

Lapunov was able to feel some of that support when he traveled to the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year for the doc’s premiere. “It made him so happy,” France said. “To feel the audience responding to his story gave him confidence that the sacrifices that he’s made, and he’s going through, have a purpose.”

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