Welcome to Chechnya: filming the battle to save LGBTQ Russians from an ‘anti-gay purge’

Welcome to Chechnya: filming the battle to save LGBTQ Russians from an ‘anti-gay purge’
A still from Welcome to Chechnya. Image courtesy of BBC/HBO

Chechnya’s infamous “anti-gay purge” has seen hundreds of people tortured on suspicions that they could be LGBTQ. In his new film, David France follows the activists seeking to bring those at risk to safe houses in Russia and beyond in rescue missions fraught with danger.

30 June 2020

In February 2017, police in the Russian region of Chechnya arrested a man on purported drugs charges. But when his phone was searched, officers found something else: messages that identified the man as gay. He was tortured until he gave up names of others in the local LGBTQ community, leading to further detentions and confessions. The procedure snowballed, kickstarting what has since become known as Chechnya’s “anti-gay purge”.

In the past three years, an unknown number of men and women have been detained without trial, subjected to brutal torture, and, in some cases, killed

In the past three years, an unknown number of men and women — almost certainly hundreds — have been detained without trial, subjected to brutal torture, and, in some cases, killed. In the words of documentary filmmaker David France, the campaign represents “the first time since Hitler that gay folx are being rounded up for extermination in a systematic, top-down, government-led campaign.” After an initial burst of media attention, the purge faded from public consciousness outside of Russia, although the brutality is still ongoing. “It is an astonishing story,” France says. “And no one is covering it.”

France’s new film, Welcome to Chechnya, is an attempt to break through that silence. Where his previous documentaries — 2012’s How to Survive a Plague and 2017’s The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson — used archive footage to examine the radical queer activism of AIDS campaigners ACT UP and Stonewall icon Marsha P. Johnson respectively, his latest is fixed in an urgent, visceral present. Shot over 18 months spent quite literally “on the run”, the film follows activists attempting to “extract” at-risk Chechens from the region, at which point they are taken to one of a number of secret safehouses in Russia or neighbouring countries, from where they can begin the arduous process of applying for asylum abroad. Embedded with these survivors, we witness the trauma of their forced exile, their uneasy combination of fear and hope. Filmed on mobile phones, hidden GoPros, and cheap handheld cameras by France and noted Russian documentarian Askold Kurov, augmented by cutting-edge technological effects, and intercut with sickening footage of violence, Welcome to Chechnya is a horribly real thriller.

France learned of the gay purge in the summer of 2017 and immediately travelled to Moscow. There he met two of the key figures in his film: Olga Baranova of the Moscow Community Centre, an LGBTQ initiative that helps to run the safehouses that accommodate on-the-run Chechens; and David Isteev of the Russian LGBT Network, who helps to organise and conduct the extractions themselves. Speaking from Russia, Isteev tells me that both he and his charges were initially reticent about the idea of being filmed. “People were afraid of the press. No one wanted to tell their stories, or to make themselves known [for fear of reprisals]. But at a certain point we realised that if we didn’t establish concrete contact, work with [France], then the story would probably be told differently, and that would be even worse.”

France’s presence also acted as insurance should a mission go wrong. “Even if people didn’t know I was travelling with them, I would be secretly recording and that would be useful if anything were to happen to them,” he explains. Playing the part of an American tourist, the director accompanied Isteev and his team on four trips to Chechnya, one of which forms a central part of the finished film: the extraction of “Anya”, a 21-year-old queer woman threatened with sexual extortion by her uncle and fearing death at the hands of her father.

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The sequence is unbearably tense, demonstrating the dangers that Isteev and his team put themselves through again and again. As Isteev himself notes in the documentary, none of these activists had any experience in this kind of direct action before 2017 — this 21st-century underground railroad was an improvised response to an emergency unfolding in secret in an inaccessible part of the country. “[In spring 2017], we weren’t connected with Chechnya. The territory was closed; there were no activists there. Everything came about very spontaneously,” he tells me. “I can’t say that there’s an ‘ideal’ method for getting people out safely: every time we have to come up with a new way of doing it. We had to learn about all the territories around Chechnya: learn about the check points and how they work, and where people might be taken.”

“It’s never safe, but when it’s an issue of life or death, that’s not important,” he continues. As for France, he describes the ethical conundra involved in shooting this footage as “our biggest challenge.” The filmmakers had three priorities: “that our actions do no harm; that we do not put ourselves in danger; and that we safeguard the digital files in such a way that it could never get into the wrong hands.” In post-production, France says, every frame of the film was studied and, if necessary, doctored in order to remove any hints as to the locations or identities of those involved.

A still from Welcome to Chechnya. Image courtesy of BBC/HBO

The most striking example of this doctoring, which helped make waves after the film’s Sundance premiere earlier this year, is its innovative use of “face doubles” to conceal the identities of the Chechen survivors. This method, which has never been used in a feature film before, involves mapping the digitally modelled faces of volunteers (mostly LGBTQ activists from New York) onto the footage, replacing the real faces of these vulnerable people with a kind of VFX “mask”. It is a radical move that served a dual purpose: it allowed the survivors, who will likely fear reprisals for the rest of their lives even if they do escape Russia, to feel comfortable welcoming the director into their lives; and it allowed France to capture moments of real human emotion, to “show the humanity of these people, let us feel their journey, see in their souls.”

“It works, fomenting homophobia. It works to consolidate authoritarian power. What this story tells us is that what seems like ‘pragmatic’ homophobia coming out of the Kremlin reaches down to people who behave in extreme and horrific ways”

The face doubling, which produces a slightly fuzzy aura around the heads of those onscreen, is undoubtedly uncanny. Yet it also helps to underscore one of the recurrent themes of the documentary: the simultaneous fragility and resilience of identity. The Chechen authorities want to erase these people on account of their sexuality. (In one infamous interview with an American TV network, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov stated that reports of the anti-gay purges could not be true because gay people simply didn’t exist in his republic: “We don’t have any gays. If there are any, take them to Canada. To purify our blood, if there are any here, take them.”) If they manage to escape, they must adopt new names and face a life in the shadows; in the film, we see whole families uprooted, literally overnight. Yet the continued existence of these victims is also a rejoinder to and evidence for the murderous impulses of the regime.

A still from Welcome to Chechnya. Image courtesy of BBC/HBO

This is powerfully brought home in the strand of the film that follows “Grisha”, a Russian event planner who was arrested and tortured while visiting Grozny on a work trip. After fleeing the country with his boyfriend and family, Grisha makes the remarkably brave decision to return to Russia and file the first official legal complaint against the Chechen authorities — something no one had dared to do before. As he sits before flashing cameras at his first public press conference, the digital masking that we have grown so accustomed to disappears to reveal his true face for the first time. We learn his real name: Maksim Lapunov. It is a deeply moving moment, proof positive of a Russian idiom that Isteev is fond of: “There’s no case if there’s no body.”

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For France, the play between public and hidden identities extends to activists like Isteev and Olga Baranova. “This is the third film I’ve done about radical queer activism,” he says. “I’m fascinated by the kinds of people who do that kind of work. One of the unique things about these characters is how hard they are to know. They’re not ordinary people. I’ve often said that the people in ACT UP weren’t nice. They did amazing things but they didn’t do it by being nice. [Isteev and Baranova] have a steeliness to them that allows them to keep going, to keep charging into danger.” When I ask Isteev about his motivations, he is suitably circumspect. “Whilst people still need help, you keep going. The thought that these crimes might be investigated and punished, that keeps you going. Because that’s what the people who went through this torture want.”

Welcome to Chechnya is a timely call for global solidarity, and a reminder that the LGBTQ community and cause have always been international. As France points out, this is a film that required foreign intervention: “It could not be made [by a Russian]. The footage had to come out of the country the minute it was shot.” In its celebration of the networks that keep people alive, the film stresses the need for mutual aid that crosses borders. As the police in Chechnya react to the work of Isteev and others with even tighter border controls, communication is more important than ever.

A still from Welcome to Chechnya. Image courtesy of BBC/HBO

Correspondingly, France understands the situation in Chechnya as an extreme example of what he calls the “rightward movement around the globe on questions of the LGBTQ community.”

“Putin climbed up over the bodies of a reignited culture war around queer freedoms.” he says. “It works, fomenting homophobia. It works to consolidate authoritarian power. What this story tells us is that what seems like ‘pragmatic’ homophobia coming out of the Kremlin reaches down to people who behave in extreme and horrific ways. Ramzan Kadyrov is merely the end of the whip that Putin is swinging.” For their part, the United States has not accepted a single refugee from Chechnya out of the 151 who have been resettled in the last two years. “Even queer folx in the US who consume queer news don’t know about this,” France notes. “This should be a global outcry and that’s what I want my film to help sponsor in some way.”

As for David Isteev, now too recognisable to travel to Chechnya yet refusing to give up the fight, his hopes for the film are simple. “It’s very important for us that people start talking about this, protesting publicly, because it’s hard to do that in Russia. People can protest outside embassies. They can petition their foreign ministries. We want pressure put on Russia to investigate these crimes.” Ultimately, this is not just a story about farflung Russian republics. Impunity can travel as easily as solidarity, as Isteev is all too aware: “If no investigation into these crimes is carried out, then no one is safe anywhere.”

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