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In early 2017, reports began to emerge out of Chechnya that authorities were detaining gay men and subjecting them to torture and humiliation. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov immediately repudiated the claims (he maintains that there are no LGBTQ individuals in Chechnya), but the documentary evidence of abuse is impossible to deny.
In response to the anti-gay purges, a group of queer activists in Russia began an underground operation to evacuate queer Chechens and place them in safe houses in Moscow until they could flee the country. Upon hearing about this movement, journalist and filmmaker David France (an Oscar nominee for 2012’s How to Survive a Plague) flew to Russia to embed himself with the activists, capturing their life-threatening work with GoPros and camera phones. The result is Welcome to Chechnya, which landed on HBO in June following its premiere at Sundance. The film is as heartbreaking as it is terrifying — in one particularly tense sequence, France follows a team on a rescue mission to save a young lesbian whose uncle had threatened to out her, which would likely result in her murder. To protect the identities of these queer Chechens, France incorporated an A.I. digital masking technology that covered the survivors with computer-generated, hyper-realistic faces. In a dramatic moment, one such digital mask dissolves when survivor Maxim Lapunov goes public about his arrest and torture.
France spoke to THR about his experience hiding alongside these survivors, the technical efforts to hide their identities and the international response to his documentary.
When did you first hear of the anti-gay purges in Chechnya and the resulting effort to raise awareness about the issue?
I first learned of the crisis in April 2017. It read like a foreign news story, you know — we’ve read about how the LGBTQ community is persecuted here and there. It didn’t call more attention to itself, at least for me, until I read another piece in The New Yorker about what the activists are doing and what life was really like there. Even after those early news stories, nobody had come to their rescue or their defense. That’s when I thought I needed to go and find out what it was like to be operating with no net whatsoever. How could it be possible that they were left to do this work alone? It felt like something that I had read in history books about Europe in the ’20s and ’30s, and yet it was happening today — this underground railroad hiding people who are being hunted, at great risk. I wanted to find some way to safely bring the story out to the world.
What’s it like to be on the ground and participate in this work? You were documenting it, but I imagine there was no way to avoid feeling like you were part of this crusade.
Once you’re on the inside, you’re no longer an independent observer. I was as frightened inside those safe houses as everybody else was. We were waiting for a raid that we thought might be coming, and there was absolutely nobody to call for help. After a while, my presence became an open part of the operation itself. I was this American guy sitting right across the restaurant from an extraction. I was the distraction — I would be fumbling around with my cellphone and making something of a spectacle of myself while enabling the work that they were doing.
You said that the first reports out of Chechnya lacked a human element to make people understand this experience. As a queer journalist, how can you be objective while also having an emotional investment in what you’re documenting?
In most of my work, I’ve tried to invest emotionally in the subject and in the people. There is something really different between doing that in print and doing that in documentary film. Joining this group of people made me realize that I’ve connected with them in a way that has much more responsibility. And an obligation. I feel like I’ve become part of this history, having lived 18 months embedded in this underground system. I didn’t just observe it, and that weighs heavily. We might be bound together by the experience in a way that [I’ve never experienced in my] professional life. We’ve become family in a way that I wasn’t expecting, In some ways I cherish that, and in some ways I know it’s a burden about this kind of work. I still dream about them. They’re still not safe, and I still feel the need to help protect them.
The digital masking you used to conceal the subjects’ identities was a fascinating element. How did you decide to use this technology?
The first thing I thought of using was rotoscoping animation, carving out the image within the frame and replacing it with a filter to make it look cartoony. I had a little clip on my cellphone when I went into the shelter system for the first time to show people. Many of these survivors are relatively young, and they were charmed by the idea of being presented as cartoons. But it didn’t really make them unrecognizable, it made them into caricatures of themselves — in a way, that made them even more recognizable. It exaggerated their physicality, so anyone who knew them would be able to figure it out.
It wasn’t until we were pitched on the idea that you could do a kind of a reverse process, using deep fake technology, that it started to seem like this was going to be possible. Literally, it changed the person’s face altogether to put this other head on it. And that’s the first moment that we thought this was actually going to be possible. Not probable, because it was so expensive, and all done by hand. Then we dug deeper and found somebody who was willing to work with us to try to find a way to automate it. That’s what made this work — it’s artificial intelligence and machine learning. It gave us something that we could bring back to all of the survivors. Even they didn’t recognize themselves.
There’s an uncanny valley element, which serves as a reminder that these people are in danger and need this protection.
When we did the first pass, we realized that the viewer wouldn’t realize [what the digital masking was]. We wanted the audience to be confident that we weren’t endangering people, and we wanted to remember the stakes at all times: Here’s a person who has to wear somebody else’s face in order to be able to tell their story. It’s a way to underscore the real peril that existed at every moment of their lives.
There’s the climactic scene when Maxim Lapunov publicly comes out at a news conference to raise awareness of the anti-gay purges, and the face we’ve seen on him dissolves to reveal his true identity. Did you have that moment in mind from the beginning?
We knew that we couldn’t treat him differently [throughout the film], because then you know from the beginning that [he would eventually] come forward. That would be hard to make sense of, so we knew that we had to treat him the way we were treating everybody else. When we removed the face when he went public, it had this real impact that really underscores his bravery and vulnerability. When his true face appears, you learn his true identity, his name, his true age … Everything about him becomes real, and you see just how courageous he is.
What has the international response to the film been like?
We got an instant reaction from the government in Chechnya. They sponsored a long piece on state-controlled television denouncing the documentary. I think they called it “a filthy and vile provocation,” repeating their denial that they’re engaged in any sort of campaign against queer Chechens because, as they go on to say, there’s no such thing and never could be such a thing. That’s the denial that we hope the film would create evidence against.
On the other hand, the film has been picked up and used by activists in a powerful way. When the trailer dropped over the summer, there were more than a million views inside Russia within 72 hours. People were going wild; the news of what was happening in Chechnya had been curtailed inside the country. That helped us develop an argument to bring to the BBC News Russian service that there was an audience for this. Because it [was aired] through the news service, we were able to bypass the cultural censors in Russia and bring the film into every household in the country. We know that we’re reaching ordinary Russians with stories about what’s happening in their communities, and we see on social media that it’s engendering a real wave of empathy for LGBTQ Russians. Change happens in little ways, but we’re hoping this will have a big impact. It was shown over the summer in Washington; [Maryland Congressman] Steny Hoyer did an introduction and convened with his colleagues on the Hill. Within a few days, the State Department issued sanctions against [Chechen leader] Ramzan Kadyrov for these crimes. That was a huge step, almost three years after the crimes — and surprising given the administration. But the evidence is too indisputable. Just in the last two weeks, the U.K. has issued a round of sanctions; the U.S. Treasury Department invoked the Magnitsky Act and moved against various businesses connected with the Chechen leaders that helped bring money into the area. For example, those sanctions affected the mixed martial arts team in Chechnya, which is really the pride of the Kadyrov regime. It’s made it impossible for that team to function outside of the Russian Federation. The U.K. announcement cited the film as being the evidence that Chechnya and Russia has flatly denied exists.
That might be the most shocking part of all — that they could pretend it’s not real. The scene in which Kadyrov denies it is so unsettling.
It’s cartoonish, when he sits down with a reporter from HBO’s Real Sports and he strokes his beard like a cartoon villain might twist his mustache. It’s a reflection of how he holds that power as effectively as he does. I think it’s political savvy that he has this ability — once again, I thought we were beyond this — to demonize and scapegoat a sexual minority in ways that will divide people and complicate life. And provide the kind of political cover that has given Putin a permanent presidency in Russia. It’s his policies that are manifested in the extreme in Chechnya. It’s his campaign against queer Russians that [influences] Kadyrov. I hope people see in the film that Putin needs to be held responsible for this.
It’s absurd that such horrifying violence needs to be seen in order to be believed.
There’s something about the complexity of what we’ve been through in this country over the last four years that has kept us from having real insight into what’s going on in the rest of the world. It got us so focused on the White House, to the exclusion of everything else. I have often said there’s been a dereliction of duty on the part of the news media when it comes to Trump and the rest of the world. We have allowed ourselves to be entertained by what’s happening in Washington and then closed the window on so much of the rest of the world. That’s why you see the people in the film having to do this work on their own, in isolation, totally undefended in Russia. The rest of us have been laughing about the tweets.
It’s hard to imagine being in these activists’ and survivors’ shoes, much less understand how they manage to keep pushing forward. But you captured moments of joy in their lives, which I imagine is what motivates them to keep fighting.
That’s what makes them survivors. I found it remarkable that when they arrive in the shelter system, for many of them it’s the first time in their lives they experienced a sense of gay identity. That was so out of reach for them in the lives that they had lived up until that point — they didn’t have a sense of identity or community. That was illuminated so brightly inside that shelter system, this safe space for people to get to know themselves and to see from the activists around them examples of older community members pulling together and building lives around their sense of liberty. That’s one of the biggest joys that you see in the faces of the people as they enter the system. The shelter system is the possibility of a fully integrated life.
Well, if the last three decades of American history has taught us anything, it’s that visibility is really the first hurdle. Once you put a human face on this concept, and it’s someone that you know and love, then the work starts moving really quickly.
Absolutely. That’s what AIDS did to us — it made the closet transparent. Bringing gay people into people’s homes in Russia is an enormous breakthrough, and unexpected culturally. We brought the story back to them, and I feel really proud of that.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
A version of this story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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