David France has returned.
The classy, intellectual activist began his career as a journalist in the 1980s, penning works for The New York Times, Newsweek and The New York Post. Though his career thrived in the early 80s, France found himself out of a job, fired for being gay at the height of the AIDS crisis. The 1990s & 2000s saw him rebound as a war correspondent and queer voice, with his nonfiction book How to Survive a Plague landing on the bestseller charts. France subsequently acquiesced to film directing, helming the documentary adaptation of How to Survive a Plague in 2012. The film scored France an Oscar Nomination for Best Documentary Feature. His follow up, The Life and Death of Marsha P. Johnson profiled the life of the queer icon, as well as her activism.
Now France returns with another harrowing feature. Welcome to Chechnya details the LGBTQ purges of Eastern Europe, specifically in Russia and the nation-state of Chechnya. In the film, France follows several Russian queer activists who risk their lives to help their community, smuggling LGBTQ people–and their families–out of Russia and into safe houses in Europe and Canada. France also uncovers how Russian President Vladamir Putin has orchestrated the purges as a way of consolidating his power, and how LGBTQ people, as well as anyone associated with a queer person, can endure harassment, torture, or simply disappear into the night.
Thrilling and horrifying, Welcome to Chechnya is one of the best films of 2020. We scored time with France (who was also honored in the Pride50 this year) to chat about the film, his career, and how those of us outside Russia can help our brethren within. The film premieres June 30 on HBO.
Happy pride and I’m glad you’re safe. I have to say, this is one of the best films of the year. Where does the story begin for you? When did you learn about the purges?
Well I’m a consumer of queer news. I heard about it the second or third of April 2017 when the story first made its way around the world. It was broken open by an investigative reporter at a Russian newspaper on April 1. It was a horrible story that she reported. But the story faded from the headlines so quickly; it didn’t make much of a splash. I, frankly, have to admit that I didn’t keep it in my sites for the next couple months either. It wasn’t until I read an article that Masha Gessen published in The New Yorker in July that I realized this horror was ongoing. And there’s no international outcry. That left it to ordinary queer Russians to respond to the crisis on their own.
That was the story of activism I wanted to find and bring attention to. Within a week or so after that, I was in Russia. I spent the next 20 months traveling there.
Oh my gosh, that’s amazing. That’s an intense amount of time to spend in a hostile environment.
Yes, but I got to spend that time with incredible human beings who had given their lives over having learned what was happening there. None of them had any any background in heroic, Caped-Crusader type activism. They just felt called on to do it, and they did do it, and they continue to do it. They’re extraordinary human beings.
And inspiring as well. This is a departure from your usual work, in that it’s not about something from the past. It’s current. In that way, it’s closer to some of your journalism from back in the day.
Mmmhmm. Before starting to make documentary films, I worked for decades as an investigative journalist for print. So this is a return to that investigation-based work that I spent my career doing. I also had an amount of experience in war zones. So I had some preparedness for dealing with the constraints of working in Russia. Knowing that it was a different sort of place than I’d ever visited, and a place in rapid transition, by the way.
I brought in security advisors to help me develop the protocols necessary to keep me and my crew on the ground safe, and also to make sure we didn’t do anything to further endanger these already endangered people. Finally, after getting this footage, we had to get it out of the country without the possibility of it being intercepted. That would have meant certain death for people.
We built a kind of model for how to grab a story like this under those circumstances.
That’s impressive. If you’d been caught in Russia, obviously, you would have put these Russian activists and queer folks in extreme danger. But did you stop to consider what could have happened to you?
I did. One of the security protocols was that every city I traveled to I had, on retainer, a criminal defense attorney.
All over Russia, there was someone nearby who knew what I was doing and was prepared to respond to my alert or to the alert of my people back in New York. We had our telephones tied together. I had a panic button on my iPhone so if anything happened to me, I could, in a single finger stroke, send an alarm halfway around the world.
Luckily it didn’t come to that.
That is lucky.
But I was detained in Chechnya on my way out. For that trip, we’d developed a very specific cover story, which was that I was a crazy rich American soccer fan.
And the World Cup had just been in Russia. The Egyptian football team, as I say as a crazy rich fan, had stayed in Chechnya. So I made myself over as a nutty fan of the Egyptian team, and I was retracing their steps. And that story worked. I had two cell phones with me: one that I was using to record the film, and the other to record my tourist escapades. So I just dropped one phone as I was pulled out of the car, and I used the other to establish my true insanity in my fandom. And they believed I was that nutty, so they let me go quickly. I was only detoured for 10 or 15 minutes—not too much to really call it a detention. But if I hadn’t been prepared, it’s unclear what might have happened.
Wow. That had to be a long 10-15 minutes. Now, before we drift too far, did you shoot the entire film on an iPhone?
We shot most of the film on a consumer Sony camera. It shoots in 4K and has a nice lens on it. It’s the highest end of consumer cameras. We used that because we couldn’t carry any real equipment, and the camera tucked into a backpack easily. When we were out in public, we shot with hidden cameras, cell phones, or GoPros so we would walk next to someone without it being plain that we were filming.
Of course. That gets to another impressive element: this movie plays like a spy thriller and a Holocaust documentary. That second bit, I don’t say lightly.
And that’s not a creation in the edit room. That’s the life these folks are living. They have given themselves over entirely at no reward to themselves, other than the knowledge that they’re helping their fellow queers.
It speaks so well of them, obviously, that they’re doing so, and at great personal risk. I think Olga even says it’s like something Stalin or Hitler would do: people just disappear. Why has the United States not taken a stand against it?
The world has gone crazy. That’s the only answer. The world has gone crazy.
Donald Trump came in and became the only interest for journalists around the world. We all have found ourselves, at least in the first year, overly-entertained by his ridiculous Twitter feed, and have made it impossible for any other story to surface in the noise and foolishness and absurdity of the Trump Administration. Now, that has turned from ridiculous and absurd to disastrous and deadly.
Throughout the administration it’s been impossible for most international stories to get any traction in the US media, and only marginal hits from the world press.
Well, and when you consider the Putin connection to Trump, there’s something so nefarious and diabolical about that: help elect the guy so he sucks up all the air in the room, then go on and do whatever we want.
It was ingenious.
And truly frightening. Hopefully, we’re coming out of that. On the subject of Putin, one conversation I’ve had repeatedly is about the nature of Russia. Russia is so much like the United States in so many ways, and should theoretically be a natural ally. But Russians love autocracy. What is the appeal?
Well, in Chechnya they have no choice.
Right. Kadyrov, the leader of Chechnya, isn’t elected. He’s appointed by Putin.
He holds his place with brute force. Putin has manipulated the electorate in fascinating ways, largely around this rightward swing into religion and the past. Much like Trump did. America wasn’t great before, but he makes up this fiction of earlier days. Putin has done that. He’s created a mythology and nostalgia around Soviet times and cast the more recent history of Russia in the light of the uncertainty in the sight of a population that is looking for something more reliable. Since 2011-2012, Putin has been stoking the culture war there with allegations unfounded and scurrilous against the queer community to continue to build support.
He has these amendments to the constitution he wants to push through in a vote that begins in a couple days and finishes July 1. The main purpose is to make him president for life.
And in order to vote in favor of it, he has presented two amendments to the constitution that enshrine homophobia in the Russian constitution. He uses that as bait to get voters to give him what he really wants, which is ongoing control and power.
Trump’s doing that with his war on the transgender community. He’s trying the same thing.
Now, have you had any threats from the Russian or Chechen government?
I have not heard anything from them. Then again, I can’t leave my house, so who knows what it’s like out there…
I don’t know how much of a nuisance this will be for them. I do know—and you should know this—that when the trailer for the film dropped it got huge attention here, but nothing compared to what it got in Russia.
It got a million views in the first 36 hours. People are thrilled that the story is coming, that truth is being told about what’s happening there to the queer community. On the other hand, people are mortified that the truth is getting out. We haven’t seen a disinformation campaign around the film yet, but we’re certainly expecting the Kremlin to use all the tools they have to counter the film if it gains a political force that brings light to what’s going on there.
So the bottom line: how do we in the West help?
Two things. The first: help them. They need money and support to continue the work they’re doing. It’s very expensive, as you can imagine, even more so with the COVID lockdown. The Russian LGBTQ community relies on foreign donations. The Moscow Community Center for LGBTQ+ Initiatives needs our support. Maxim Lupinov, who you see in the film bringing the first and only criminal case against the torturers and goons in Chechnya is pursuing the case in criminal court. That initiative needs our support as well. You can help them all by going to WelcomeToChechnya.com, and clicking the button that says “Save Lives.” That will bring you to a page to give them support.
The other thing you can do is just be a witness. They’ve said over and over this doesn’t happen, that nobody has ever seen anything like this, that there are no witnesses. We are now all witnesses to this. I want people who see the film to stand up and say “I am a witness.” Use that hashtag to let Russia know the word is out, and they can’t deny it anymore. They will be listening.
Last question: is this your most personal film? You’ve based your entire career around queer activism as a journalist and filmmaker. This is the most urgent thing you’ve ever done.
I think my most personal is How to Survive a Plague. That’s really my story. I’m in multiple frames and multiple scenes [of the film]. I lived that terror. [Welcome to Chechnya] is a frightening thing to take on, but I could leave there. Leaving there, it’s my responsibility to tell me what I saw.
Welcome to Chechnya debuts on HBO June 30. Visit WelcomeToChechnya.com to help.