Director David France has curated a filmography dedicated to the history of the queer community. His How to Survive a Plague is one of the most immediate and devastating documentaries I have ever seen, and it’s one of the best pieces of media about the AIDS epidemic available to us. With his searing new HBO film, Welcome to Chechnya, France turns the focus to the hunting and extermination of queer people that is going on right now in Chechnya. You cannot tear your eyes from the screen.
In addition to Plague and The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, France has worked tirelessly on the history of the AIDS crisis, but Chechnya felt like a project that would marry his earlier work with his filmmaking.
“This was a return to my roots as an investigative journalist. When I heard about the work being taken on by activists in Russia, I knew it was going to be an active investigation to get to the evidence to carry this story forward. For the first time, it combined my training in journalism and my interest as a filmmaker in this radical LGBT activism. I saw it as a third in my trilogy of queer activism.”
Putting a face to a crisis can sometimes elevate the circumstances of those who are suffering, and France’s film is probably the first time that a lot of people around the world hear of the queer genocide going on in Chechnya today. Not only did France want to bring the violence to the attention of the world, but he wanted to show another example of the resilience of queer people.
“When I got through the network, I asked people to experience their lives. Maybe because I have this track record or they literally never met a middle-aged, queer man who they could see kinship with. Or maybe they just believed me. They wanted to tell their stories and I wanted the world to see the impact of this trauma and to see what I was seeing. The pain, the atrocity, but also the humanity and the resilience and the conviction and to let them narrate their story to allow them to connect with them. I think all of our stories in our long, queer history, are stories of emotion. We are not just sexual beings but are human beings with a connection with one another that is remarkably intense.”
One of the most shocking moment of Welcome to Chechnya is the footage from an interview with Vladimir Putin-appointed Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov. Bryant Gumbel asks about the anti-gay violence happening in Chechnya and he laughs it off as non-existent. He claims that there are no queer people in his country. That simple denial has the ability to take a dangerous and hateful root in many people.
“He is playing the part of a madman or he’s a cartoon version of a madman. He is stroking his beard with this expression of disdain. But it’s not malice. It’s a political campaign and calculated and designed to maintain disability within the people. That’s why it’s important to look at Chechnya today because it’s not just Chechnya. Kadyrov is the end of the whip that’s being swung by Putin in the Kremlin who for the last ten years has brought back the anti-LGBT culture wars to Russia. He’s showing the way for autocrats around the world, like in Brazil, to use this scapegoating and campaign to use anti-gay sentiments to control and keep people fighting with themselves. It’s a distraction.”
I was personally scared of another Trump term for how it might affect those in the LGBT community. Amy Coney Barrett was rushed into the Supreme Court and just in 2020 The Department of Housing and Urban Development rolled back a previous rule that protected trans people against discrimination in homeless shelters. In his final months in office, Trump’s administration took shocking strides against people of the queer community relating to healthcare and protections and it makes audiences confront the notion that the violence happening in Chechnya could find its way in other places around the world.
“Let’s not let America off the hook. There are now over 200 pieces of legislation percolating Republican statehouses demonizing queer Americans. Why? It’s a way to destabilize and galvanize a fearful adherence that’s about removing rights and now granting rights. It’s about theoretically protecting us from an alien and misunderstood minority. We are showing that these culture wars have great political potential as they did in the 80’s and 90’s and like they did in the 1950s. We have to be vigilant against those things or we will be welcoming Chechnya to our backyard.”
One of the most important things to France and his crew was the connection with those involved. He didn’t simply ask them to trust him and they signed a piece of paper to detail their willingness to be in his film. He and his team continually checked in and made sure they had a hand in their stories and that meant that France created a new form of consent that could change how documentary filmmakers work with their subjects.
“I worked with my crew in New York about this question of consent and what we called informed consent. It wouldn’t be enough just to get them to sign a piece of paper, but we had to keep going back to them over and over to make sure they knew what they were consenting to do and that consent is lasting. We created this protocol that had us returning to all the subjects until the very end to renew their consent. I told them I’d disguise them and they would sign off on those disguises. I’d bring them scenes and they would review them for security purposes. At any moment, any of them could’ve pulled the plug which would have sunk the film but it was important for me to let them have that power after so much power had been taken from them. This was at-risk filmmaking in a way that I had never heard of other people taking on.”
Through the horror, France found a glimmer of hope that he didn’t expect to find in the love story between Maxim and his partner, “Bogdan.” In a country where being queer can get you killed, loving someone so strongly and depending on them can be its own act of defiance. You cannot kill that spirit.
“It’s also a love story. It’s a story for the community and how love is being used by activists in weaponized ways to save total strangers. It’s the possibility of a love between Maxim and “Bogdan” and love within families. Their whole family goes underground in order to protect Maxim from the perils that are waiting for him the moment he’s discovered. It’s about the decriminalization of the love in the community. I knew I was going to find a story of atrocity but I didn’t know I would find a story of passion and love. That’s what moved me so tremendously. It still does.”