Welcome to Chechnya: Docu’s Impact–Engendering Real Wave of Empathy for LGBTQ Russians

Docu’s Impact: Engendering Real Wave of Empathy for LGBTQ Russians

WELCOME TO CHECHNYA and inset of David France
Michael Loccisano/Getty Images ; Courtesy of HBO

Activist Maxim Lapunov reunites with his partner after fleeing Chechnya. Lapunov was detained for 12 days by police, during which time he alleges he was beaten, tortured and raped.

In early 2017, reports began to emerge out of Chechnya that authorities were detaining gay men and subjecting them to torture and humiliation. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov immediately repudiated the claims (he maintains that there are no LGBTQ individuals in Chechnya), but the documentary evidence of abuse is impossible to deny.

Gay Directors, Gay Films? By Emanuel Levy (Columbia University Press, August 2015).

In response to the anti-gay purges, a group of queer activists in Russia began an underground operation to evacuate queer Chechens and place them in safe houses in Moscow until they could flee the country. Upon hearing about this movement, journalist and filmmaker David France flew to Russia to embed himself with the activists, capturing their life-threatening work with GoPros and camera phones.

Welcome to Chechnya landed on HBO in June following its premiere at Sundance. The film is as heartbreaking as it is terrifying — in one particularly tense sequence, France follows a team on a rescue mission to save a young lesbian whose uncle had threatened to out her, which would likely result in her murder. To protect the identities of these queer Chechens, France incorporated an A.I. digital masking technology that covered the survivors with computer-generated, hyper-realistic faces. In a dramatic moment, one such digital mask dissolves when survivor Maxim Lapunov goes public about his arrest and torture.


Activist Olga Baranova works with Russian LGBT Network to rescue survivors out of Chechnya
Courtesy of HBO
Activist Olga Baranova works with Russian LGBT Network to rescue survivors out of Chechnya
Anti-gay purges in Chechnya?

I first learned of the crisis in April 2017. It read a foreign news story— we’ve read about how the LGBTQ community is persecuted here and there. It didn’t call more attention to itself, at least for me, until I read another piece in The New Yorker about what the activists are doing and what life was really like there. Even after those early news stories, nobody had come to their rescue or their defense. That’s when I thought I needed to go and find out what it was like to be operating with no net whatsoever. How could it be possible that they were left to do this work alone? It felt like something that I had read in history books about Europe in the ’20s and ’30s, and yet it was happening today — this underground railroad hiding people who are being hunted, at great risk. I wanted to find some way to safely bring the story out to the world.

Being on the ground and participate in this work?

Once you’re on the inside, you’re no longer an independent observer. I was as frightened inside those safe houses as everybody else was. We were waiting for a raid that we thought might be coming, and there was absolutely nobody to call for help. After a while, my presence became an open part of the operation itself. I was this American guy sitting right across the restaurant from an extraction. I was the distraction — I would be fumbling around with my cellphone and making something of a spectacle of myself while enabling the work that they were doing.

David France hid alongside survivors in Moscow safe houses while filming Welcome to Chechnya.
Courtesy of HBO
David France hid alongside survivors in Moscow safe houses while filming ‘Welcome to Chechnya.’

First reports out of Chechnya lacked human element 

In my work, I’ve tried to invest emotionally in the subject and in the people. There is something really different between doing that in print and doing that in documentary film. Joining this group of people made me realize that I’ve connected with them in a way that has much more responsibility. And an obligation. I feel like I’ve become part of this history, having lived 18 months embedded in this underground system. I didn’t just observe it, and that weighs heavily. We might be bound together by the experience in a way that I’ve never experienced in my professional life. We’ve become family in a way that I wasn’t expecting, In some ways I cherish that, and in some ways I know it’s a burden about this kind of work. I still dream about them. They’re still not safe, and I still feel the need to help protect them.