Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Interview With The Director Of 'Welcome To Chechnya'


We're going to switch gears now to another story that speaks to human rights. "Welcome To Chechnya" - sounds like a cheesy tourist infomercial. The new HBO documentary by that title is anything but. It details the brutal campaign to identify, detain, harass, even torture gay, lesbian and trans people by the Moscow-backed government in Chechnya. That's the majority-Muslim Republic in southern Russia. And it also tells the story of people who put themselves in danger to shelter and relocate at-risk LGBTQ Chechens.

David France is the Oscar-nominated filmmaker who directed the film, which premiered at this year's Sundance Festival. And he is with us now.

David France, thank you so much for speaking with us.

DAVID FRANCE: Thank you for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: So people who follow Masha Gessen's work in The New Yorker, who writes a great deal about human rights, might be aware of this, or perhaps people who remember that Russia adopted an anti-LGBT movement or platform the year before they hosted the 2014 Winter Olympics. But for people who aren't familiar with this history and this background, why Chechnya? Why did you feel the need to make a film there?

FRANCE: Well, in fact, you bring up Masha Gessen. It was really her reporting that made me realize that what was happening in Chechnya is unlike any other part of the world. It's a government-led, top-down effort to round up and actually eliminate LGBTQ Chechens.

MARTIN: And the documentary just at the beginning makes it very clear, you know, what the stakes are. I mean, within just a minute of the film, you're shown a caption that reads, for their safety, people who are fleeing for their lives have been digitally disguised. How was this done? And how - why is this so important?

FRANCE: Well, it was important to the people who were fleeing because they know that it's not enough for them to just escape. If it were known that they were alive somewhere in the world, they are still subject to this blood cleansing, as the leader in Chechnya calls it. So they are being hunted wherever they go. So I promised them that I would protect their identities.

And the approach that we used, which is a brand-new approach, allowed us to digitally replace their faces with someone else's face - a volunteer, an activist, really. We asked over 20 people to let us borrow their faces and lend them as a shield to protect the people in the film. And it doesn't change anything that the people say or what the people do, but it just digitally maps another person's face over theirs. And we see their emotions come through that other - that new skin.

MARTIN: You know, it can't - it just can't be overstated. I mean, the brutality of the circumstances people are facing is truly sickening. I mean, there are videos of - are these - what are these, vigilantes? Are these security people slapping people around, attacking people?

FRANCE: They're security people.

MARTIN: They're security people. I mean, how did you get these? I mean, are these trophy videos? Are they proud of what they're doing?

FRANCE: They are trophy videos. And they're also in some way deliverables, right? So this is proof that they carried out what they were instructed to carry out. And these have been passed around in WhatsApp groups by the perpetrators themselves. And that's where they were found by the activists, who were able to intercept them and use them as proof of this thing that's going on which everybody in Chechnya denies is going on.

But here it is. It's recorded. It's undeniable now with that footage. And that's why we wanted to use it - as, you know, evidence of this ongoing crime.

MARTIN: One of the reasons that you were able to connect with many of these people is because of the remarkable network of activists who are risking their own lives to get them out. And "Welcome To Chechnya" follows two of these activists, David Isteev and Olga Baranova.


MARTIN: First of all, these activists clearly are targeted themselves as well, right? I mean, how did they get involved in this work? And how did they do it?

FRANCE: Well, you know, they were certainly never expecting to have to take on this kind of a challenge. David came to this through journalism. He'd been a journalist, and he started working with the Russian LGBT Network to help them set up programs for transgender Russians. And then this happened, and suddenly, he's called upon to do these harrowing and very risky things. And he takes it on because nobody else was, I think, and he felt an obligation.

And it has consumed his life. He's become a man who lives in the shadows, you know, who's constantly changing locations. He's - you know, he's in constant danger for the work that he's doing.

And Olga came with a similar background. She was in advertising. She was helping to set up a community center in Moscow for LGBTQ Russians. And then she was called upon to construct this network of hidden shelters and underground passageways to get people across borders and into the West, where they would be more safe. And they did it at great dislocation to their own lives. And it's amazing to meet people who, you know, are kind of superhuman in their ability to step up and take responsibility when others wouldn't.

MARTIN: And to that end, you know, only one of your subjects was willing to identify themselves and file a criminal case. This was Maxim Lapunov, and although he was obviously terrified, he did feel that the law would do him justice. But the Russian government didn't pursue his case. And what was that like to witness that?

FRANCE: It was a shock, certainly for me, when they rejected his case appeal after appeal. But it was heartbreaking to watch Maxim lose his faith in the justice system, to lose his faith in the - in his own country. Literally, that's what the end result of those denials was for him and his family. And he went in to prosecute that criminal case with such hope and faith that it would make a difference.

MARTIN: I was going to play a clip from a film. This is Olga Baranova putting what's happening in Chechnya in a historical context. Here it is.


OLGA BARANOVA: (Non-English language spoken).

MARTIN: She says - I'm just going to paraphrase here - it happened during Stalin and Hitler, and now it's happening under Putin and Kadyrov. A group of people is identified for extermination without charges or a trial, and that's it. And she's referring to Ramzan Kadyrov, who is the Moscow-backed leader of the Chechen Republic. And I have to ask you - I know - maybe this is a ridiculous question, and I apologize. But as we've mentioned that Ramzan Kadyrov has led this government effort, why? I mean, why? And what role does Putin play in all this?

FRANCE: This really is the net result of Putin's weaponization of homophobia in Russia beginning, as you mentioned, with the adoption of the so-called gay propaganda law that makes it illegal to say anything that might be deemed in favor of LGBTQ Russians in the presence of minors because that would be disruptive to the minors.

And so when the Kremlin is doing that, then when you reach down to the further extremes of the ideologies within that very large country, you find people like Kadyrov, who interprets that in the most horrific way. But I see Kadyrov as being like the tip of the whip that Putin is swinging. And that's why Putin is doing nothing to intervene.

MARTIN: So is there any concern at all that putting more eyes on the situation in Chechnya would put more people at risk, or would at least put the people who you're following at even greater risk?

FRANCE: I took my leadership from them on that. And they wanted to have this film come out to the world because they know that what they're doing has been detected, and this film gives them an added layer of protection for the work that they're doing. And also, they need the world to know what's happening there, or it won't stop. And it won't stop until this campaign is finished.

MARTIN: That was David France. He's an Oscar-nominated filmmaker and director of the new HBO documentary "Welcome To Chechnya."

David France, Thank you for speaking with us.

FRANCE: Thank you, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAX RICHTER'S "VLADIMIR'S BLUES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.