David France (‘Welcome to Chechnya’ director): ‘A liquidation campaign like the kind we haven’t seen since Hitler’ [EXCLUSIVE VIDEO INTERVIEW]

“There’s no way you can chronicle and document a genocide without knowing that you’re going to suffer,” declares David France about experience of making “Welcome to Chechnya.” The third in what the Oscar-nominated director calls a trilogy of queer activism, it documents the efforts of a group of activists as they  help queer citizens of Chechnya escape a state-sanctioned purge of members of the LGBTQ community. The film premiered in 2020 at the Sundance Film Festival before airing on HBO. Watch our exclusive video interview above.

France became aware of the situation in Chechnya after reading a report by a Russian independent newspaper in 2017. Despite the clear evidence of what he calls “a liquidation campaign like the kind we haven’t seen since Hitler,” France argues that there’s a more significant reason for the lack of a worldwide response to the crisis. “I think that it failed to capture the attention, even within the queer community, because we didn’t have any images from what was happening there,” he argues. “That was out of design because the people who are fleeting this persecution are being hunted around the globe. That’s how serious this campaign is.”

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France embedded himself with the activists for months to capture footage in secret, an experience that the director describes as both terrible and uplifting. “While I was really braced for this journey into ugliness, I was also really surprised and impressed by the other things that I found there,” he explains. “To rescue people they don’t even know is this expression of the love of humanity.”

France took great care in disguising the identities of the individuals trying to escape Chechnya, using digital technology to alter the participant’s faces. The director also made sure that the participants had the chance to sign off on the altered footage so that they would feel assured that their identities would be kept a secret. France says that they subjects often didn’t even recognize themselves in the footage. “So many of them were not able to identify this image that was basically them with someone else’s skin on their face,” he says.

Like his two previous films, “The Death and Life of Martha P. Johnson” and the Oscar-nominated “How to Survive a Plague,” France sees “Welcome to Chechnya” as a more than just a document of queer history. “It’s everybody’s history,” he argues. “That’s why I have been so taken by these stories of real heroics because I think they teach us so much about who we are as people. I think that’s the gift that the queer movement has left for the rest of humanity.”

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