‘Welcome to Chechnya’ Spotlights an LGBTQ Genocide — And the Brave Activists Trying to Stop It

Documentarian David France was embedded in the Russian republic for nearly two years chronicling the underground railroad of volunteers risking their lives to rescue Chechnya’s queer victims

David France has devoted his life to chronicling the struggles of queer activists in a world openly hostile to their very existence. An investigative reporter with bylines in The New York Times and Newsweek, he made his first film in 2012, the Oscar-nominated documentary How to Survive a Plague, which celebrated ACT UP, the bare-knuckled grassroots organization that started up in the late 1980s, fearlessly fighting to be heard at a time when AIDS was devastating the LGBTQ community. (It’s an inspiring portrait of take-no-prisoners social activism that’s gained newfound relevance in the midst of our current pandemic and Black Lives Matter.) He followed it up with The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, a moving salute to the groundbreaking transgender icon whose murder, ruled at the time a suicide, shined a light on transphobia even within the LGBTQ movement.

Now comes Welcome to Chechnya, which has been positioned as the final installment of this trilogy of documentaries honoring everyday heroes in the battle for equal rights. In some ways, it’s France’s most harrowing film yet. We travel to the titular Russian republic, ruled by the brutal Ramzan Kadyrov, who’s been in power for more than a decade but, starting in 2016, began ratcheting up his cruelty, targeting LGBTQ Chechens for torture and execution. (He’s denied existence of this program but has said that the country should “cleanse our blood” of its gay citizens.) This deadly purge has prompted no condemnation from Vladimir Putin, a loyal supporter of Kadyrov, and received little news coverage. But when France read a 2017 piece in The New Yorker detailing underground railroads designed to help the targeted flee Chechnya, he knew he had the subject for his next film.

Soon, he convinced these undercover activists to let him embed with them, learning how they help LGBTQ individuals escape certain death by seeking asylum in other lands. (One of Welcome to Chechnya’s most nerve-wracking moments involves a refugee anxiously sitting on the tarmac hoping his flight will take off.) In total, France spent 20 months with these groups — which include the Russian LGBT Network and the Moscow Community Center for LGBTI+ Initiatives — and, remarkably, he utilized a newish technology that allowed him to digitally alter the faces of those on the run. Rather than having their visage blurred or covered with a black box, France superimposed another person’s face on top. It’s a marvelous, relatively seamless effect that ensures that these victims, though their identities are protected, never lose their sense of humanity. As a result, we feel like we’re on this terrifying odyssey alongside the refugees, who have had to say goodbye to everyone (including their families, who are often working with the government to track them down) in search of freedom.

Speaking from New York, France, who’s in his early 60s, reflected on his journey to make Welcome to Chechnya and bring it to audiences. (The documentary premieres on HBO on June 30th.) We talked about some of the technical logistics of such a dangerous project, but I was more interested in the film’s larger implications — specifically, what it says about America’s diminished global leadership in regards to LGBTQ rights and why the world knows so little about the genocide occurring in Chechnya. But France wants to be sure we widen our lens beyond just the atrocities in Russia, seeing them as symptomatic of larger global ills. “It’s really a dangerous time to be gay,” he tells me. “That’s why this story is so important.”

Kadyrov was in power long before he began this sadistic campaign. What emboldened him to start targeting LGBTQ Chechens?
He was cracking down on drug use and drug dealing in the country — it was a violent, vicious crackdown — and one of the people who fell into his snare happened to be gay who had on his telephone intimate photographs that revealed his sexual orientation. The photographs were of numerous other men, and [the government] began to torture him into revealing the identities of those other men. They then did the same with those men and created the first campaign to round them up.

There were previous instances where gay people have been persecuted in the region, but never like this. I think what Kadyrov and his people felt they had discovered was a “sleeper cell” of some sort — they realized that there was a gay community that was interconnected in the republic. It’s anybody’s guess what motivated them, but it was that discovery that gave them the impetus to announce this official liquidation campaign.

Because of Trump’s cozy relationship with Putin, I can understand why we don’t hear more about this liquidation in our country. But have other nations been more vocal in condemning this?
There have been expressions of outrage and demands for justice by a handful of world leaders, including Angela Merkel from Germany and Justin Trudeau from Canada, who were among the most powerful voices and have been in defense of the LGBTQ community in Russia generally and in Chechnya in specific. But those voices haven’t united in an effective way yet to really force the Russian court system to open up to the allegations that have been brought to it — and for the human rights advocates to be able to bring forward that evidence so that justice can prevail.

That only got worse when the pandemic hit. Obviously, everyone is scrambling in so many different ways, but it’s meant terrible things for the LGBTQ people in Chechnya. They’ve been locked into the region. The border around Chechnya is solidly closed, and the ability for people to escape has been almost entirely thwarted.

This brings me to your film. On the one hand, I can see why these activists would want you there to raise awareness. On the other, they risk making themselves more visible and endangering their lives.
It was an ongoing struggle between those two goals. They needed to defend the security of their organization and the safety of the people they were helping, and they needed the cover of darkness to do that. But they also need the world to know what they’re doing — what they’re forced to do, essentially, in the absence of the political pressure that we were just talking about. Only by opening up to me — and I was the only person who asked, I guess — do they see the possibility of bringing the story to the larger world.

Sometimes they were warmer than other times to my desire to follow along with them, depending on what the security situations were like. And sometimes they had me with them because they felt that it would be important to have a video record of what they were doing in case they were arrested and charged with something altogether different, as often happens in Chechnya. Drugs are planted on human rights advocates all the time and on journalists all the time — they’re brought up on these false charges and thrown in prison for long stretches. They felt that [my] video evidence would allow them some sort of defense in case they were seized. So we served various purposes for them as we spent these 20 months together.

You’re a journalist reporting a story — and therefore supposedly “objective” — but you’re also an advocate for the cause. Did those two sides ever conflict? Did you ever disagree with how these activists went about their work?
No, I stood in admiration of them and their work the entire time. They don’t have to do this work — they never were trained to do this work. They came from all sorts of ordinary walks of life and pulled together in early 2017 to ask themselves, “What can we do?” And the only answer they came up with was this kind of James Bond-like rescue mission.

They’ve been at this now for three years, and they’re just remarkable human beings doing superhuman work. I have no criticism of them. I was embedded there, as you say, but always as a journalist. I brought back the story that I saw, and that’s the story that I’m sharing with you.

We tend not to think of documentaries as being on the forefront of special effects, but Welcome to Chechnya utilizes this incredible technology where you inserted a digital face over the actual face of the people fleeing the country. It’s not “deepfake,” but it seems similar. How did that decision come about?
I promised the people who were fleeing that I wouldn’t reveal their identities. But I asked them to let me film their faces anyway, so that I could be informed about their emotional journey as they dealt with recovering from the torture that they’d been through, and as they reckoned with the violence that their family represented, and the threats they were feeling from all sides.

When I brought the footage back [to America], I experimented with all the tools that documentary filmmakers and others have used over the years to protect identities, and I found that they all distracted from the humanity of the people who were being disguised. That’s when we started experimenting with AI and deep-machine learning. It’s not deepfake — it’s just the opposite. The actions and dialogue and facial expressions in the film are all true, just expressed beneath a different skin.

Where did you find the “actors” who supplied the faces?
They’re mostly New Yorkers, mostly LGBTQ activists, and they’re not acting. Here’s the process: We filmed them from all angles and in all lighting situations, and we used that data to inform this algorithm that then took their face and digitally mapped it over the face of the people who are in the film. So, it’s not a performance, per se. It’s like blending DNA in a way — only, in this case, it was their faces and myriad expressions. 

We had them smile so that the camera would know what they looked like smiling. And we had them close their eyes and open their eyes. It was just giving as much data as possible to the computers to be able to do this work faithfully. And by “faithfully,” I mean literally what it’s doing is giving back the power to these individuals through this digital face transplantation to tell their own stories, to regain their own narrative. That was all done with deep-machine learning and mapping programs. It’s a phenomenal new approach to how to handle something like this.

At the end of the documentary, you mention that the U.S. has permitted none of these refugees to enter our country. Obviously, that’s because of Trump, but before he was in office, was our track record significantly better in terms of welcoming LGBTQ refugees?
Our track record for everything has been better in the past, but certainly on this question. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, at the very beginning of the Obama administration, aligned the State Department foreign policy around human rights assessments, including the treatment of LGBTQ people in other countries around the world. It put the U.S., for the first time, in an activist position around the globe in defense of queer folks. And that was eliminated on Day One of this new administration. The Obama administration wasn’t super-liberal on the question of granting asylum or refugee status, but they did consider those applications on a case-by-case basis.

The other thing is that the folks coming from Chechnya — that’s a largely Muslim region of Russia, and that’s another reason the Trump administration uses to keep those folks out.

There are myriad refugee crises around the world, not just for LGBTQ people but others fleeing their homeland for other reasons…
…So where do queer people rank?

Exactly.
Well, the European Union is very welcoming to migrants — or has been in the past — and that’s slowly eroding in places, but it has a long tradition. As does Canada. Canada prides itself on its ability to open its arms to refugees of all sorts and to help integrate them into Canadian life. There are many examples of countries that do the right thing, but it’s hard for queer refugees in general, because often if they go to refugee camps or are forced into camps — as the Trump administration has at the Southern border — they experience violence at the hands of other refugees. So they’re often confronting an even more concentrated form of prejudice in the refugee camps.

Welcome to Chechnya illustrates how LGBTQ people aren’t just fleeing the government but also their own families, which is terrifying.
It’s a rare experience for the family members to stand up [for] their queer children. Chechens are an ethnic minority, and it’s a clan-based society, so one family is very, very, very large and they operate under ancient traditions. If it’s known that you have a queer relative in your family, it impacts your entire family’s social status in Chechen life. And the directive from Ramzan Kadyrov to eliminate these folks is a directive that includes instructions to family members to carry out a so-called honor killing.

Honor killings can be carried out without legal charge, without criminal charge, by any male member of your family. And because the families are so large and intertwined, it’s very likely that somebody, if not your father or brother [then] some distant cousin [will have the] motivation to kill you. If nobody in your family does carry that out, the entire family finds itself under intense pressure from the government. It looks like this: Family members, fathers, brothers, they’re all called in on a regular basis to the security offices to explain why they haven’t yet carried out the so-called honor killing. These things are inescapable.

That’s why the people in the film wouldn’t allow me to use their faces, because if it were known that they were alive, their family members would fall under that same sort of ongoing pressure to do something, to help “cleanse,” as they call it, the Chechen bloodline of gay and lesbian people.

It can be tempting for some Americans to watch your film and think, “Yes, that’s terrible, but that’s happening over there. It would never happen in America.” But do you see parallels between Chechnya and here?
What’s happening here these days has surprised me entirely. The gains that the LGBTQ movement has scored over the last 40, 50 years are amazing — it was unimaginable for my generation when we were coming up that we would be this integrated, this connected to our cultural life. With the arrival of Trump and the arrival of this rightward movement in the country, we’ve seen an assault on those gains — especially against our transgender sisters and brothers.

And this is happening not just here, by the way. In Poland, over the last year, various regions of the country have declared themselves “gay-free” zones. And that’s right in the heart of Europe. And this move rightward — this new assault, this new front against our achievements — is very worrisome, even with the Supreme Court sometimes making a remarkable and unpredicted salvo in our favor. We’re losing ground here and around the globe, and it’s a reminder: You can never rest. This is a struggle that will never end.

I’ve thought of How to Survive a Plague many times this year because of COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement. You’ve been talking about that film a lot lately, too, so clearly you see some similarities between that story and what’s happening today.
How to Survive a Plague is a story about people who are entirely without power finding a way to seize control and make social change. It’s a story about how to succeed. And I think that’s why people are turning to it now, because it’s an example of, and a blueprint for, successful social justice activism.

That’s why I think it’s used as an inspiration by, for example, the movement for Black Lives that’s doing very similar work now — and with a track record already that has moved the needle on racial justice in the country. That movement, which is so exciting, has the potential to also be as triumphant as the AIDS movement was. That’s where they’re tied together — this notion that, as powerless as you feel, there are still ways to get to victory.

But that film also reminds viewers that politeness doesn’t bring about change. ACT UP needed to be angry and be willing to have sharp elbows to make a difference.
Well, they couldn’t afford to lose, right? Because if they lost, they would be dead. I think that’s the same motivation. ACT UP wasn’t afraid of frightening people. And they felt that the potential for creating that sort of fear amongst researchers and politicians gave them the power to enter into those rooms and begin a really productive conversation about how to chart a course to a better future.

Do you consider what’s happening in Chechnya to be genocide?
It is but, formally, it cannot be described as a genocide, because gay people aren’t included in the formal definition of genocide. But it’s the same practice and the same net effect, and it should generate the same kind of global outrage and cry for justice that any genocide does. The fact that it hasn’t, I think, says something really damning about our political leadership in the West and on the global front. It says something damning about the United Nations and other international bodies. It should be calling them to action.

Why is it not, technically, genocide?
Genocide is considered an attempt to eliminate political, racial or religious minorities, and queer people are defined as a cultural or a social minority. And that’s what exempts us from that definition.

That seems unconscionable. Has there been any attempt to expand the legal definition?
No, I don’t think so because, frankly, this hasn’t happened since Hitler. This is the first time since Hitler that a government-controlled, top-down policy is put in place to round up and eliminate queer people. That’s not to say that it’s a happy world elsewhere for the LGBTQ community. There are eight countries where it’s a capital offense to be gay. There are 70 countries in the world where it’s illegal to be gay, which would get you jail time. And places like Russia, where it’s totally legal to be gay and there are certain guarantees for gay rights, people are being assaulted and murdered all through the country.

It’s really a dangerous time to be gay. That’s why this story is so important. This story is about this kind of government campaign. It really is a genocide. It’s an ethnic cleansing from within. We don’t really have a word to say what it is, except that it’s a horror.

This is Pride Month, but Black Lives Matter has generated so much attention recently because of the killing of George Floyd and others. It almost feels like we as a country don’t have the bandwidth to also acknowledge that other groups are being persecuted and marginalized.
Well, the movement for Black Lives has taken up that cause. [Recently] we saw that massive mobilization around the country of people in defense of Black and brown transgender Americans. It’s a part of the movement for racial justice, and it should be. We all are joining our voices in that call.

I think the movement right now is an American movement and doesn’t have the bandwidth to take on the rest of the globe. I don’t hold the movement responsible for not telling us more about what’s going on in Russia, and in Egypt, and in Tanzania, and in Jamaica, and parts of the world where gay people are being slaughtered left and right. I think it’s up to journalists to be taking up those stories. And I really fault the American and world media for not investigating this when the news of it first broke, and for not keeping it on the agenda.

Why aren’t those stories covered? Are they somehow not considered “exciting” or “sexy” enough?
I don’t know if I’m smart enough to give you an answer to that. Trump comes to office in January of 2017. This [Chechnya] story broke in April of 2017. In that period, and since then, the media has been overly fascinated by Trump’s tweet cycles — and, I believe, overly entertained by them in ways that draw them to want to see the newest outrage out of Washington. That has created a really shallow news cycle and has left very little room for reporting on these other issues. There are very few news operations that have global footprints, and they haven’t been reserving the space for these really urgent and necessary stories from around the globe.

We’re so inundated with Trump’s constant insanity we don’t have the mental space for any other news.
Like the other day, he announced that we had an AIDS vaccine, which we don’t have. So then, we get two, three, four stories running simultaneously about the AIDS vaccine, and he’s just misdirected us over to something else. We’re being led around by our noses.

When you made The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, you received some criticism that it wasn’t your place as a cisgender man to tell the story of a transgender icon. It’s been a few years since that documentary came out: What did you take away from that criticism?
Well, part of that argument just misunderstands the role of journalists and the role of historians. It’s our job to tell the under-told stories. It’s our job not to be corralled by a distraction but to lift up stories as we find them — especially of people who aren’t like us.

My job isn’t to report on and make films about middle-aged, white, cisgender gay guys from the Midwest. With the Chechnya film, I went to another country and told the story about people in that world, also not my own. I try to bring my training as an historian and journalist to the task to make sure that I understood it in its own context — and that I portray it faithfully.

The important subtext around the Marsha film was how hard it was for anybody else to tell that story, so I could make the argument that I told it because it hadn’t been told. What I would miss if I stood on that argument is that others were trying to tell it — and weren’t empowered to tell it the same way I was empowered to tell it. They didn’t have the support of the Sundance Institute, for example, and the Ford Foundation and the various funding sources that make it possible to tell social-justice stories in documentary form. 

And that’s really a question about access and one that’s a serious and ongoing one, and it certainly ties right into the movement that we’re seeing form so promisingly across the country today: How do you find and dismantle the walls that have been put up against people of color, whether they’re transgender or not in the U.S.?

We’re in a moment now where people are starting to actually see those walls and find ways to help lift up those voices — that’s what I’ve been trying to do since then. That’s certainly the lesson that I took away from the people who looked at my accomplishments with The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson and really, really, really wanted those accomplishments to also belong to transgender filmmakers and filmmakers of color. We’ve made some progress over the last couple of years. I think that in every walk of life now, we’re being asked to make much more progress. I’m hoping that the people who keep those gates in filmmaking, in storytelling, in news-gathering are opening them up now in effective and transformative ways.