David France understood right from the beginning that his film, “Welcome to Chechnya,” was going to be an essential tool in explaining what is currently happening to LGBTQ people in that region of Russia. “They needed a tool that they could use to carry out to the larger world and force conversations about bringing the kind of pressure that’s going to be necessary against the Chechen leadership to stop the atrocities and genocide that’s unfolding there.” France joined our recent “Meet the Experts” documentary panel.
The film has actually produced some positive results in that area. A huge accomplishment came after a screening in Washington “this past summer that brought sanctions for the first time from the U.S. government against the Chechen leadership for these crimes and sanctions also emanating from the U.K., the E.U and Canada.”
“Welcome to Chechnya” explores the horrors that LGBTQ people have been facing in the Russian republic and the underground network of activists who are attempting to shelter people and help them escape the region. The persecution began in 2017 and has been called a “blood cleansing” by the Chechen government. They’ve rounded up known or suspected queer people, held them in what are basically concentration camps, tortured them to reveal the identities of other queer people and will often beat or execute them. France, a former investigative journalist, is a past Oscar nominee in the Documentary Feature category for “How to Survive a Plague” in 2012.
When France first started reaching out to connect with people in the region, he found that they had already set up a network of people who had built an underground escape route similar to the ones that helped Jews fleeing from Hitler’s regime during World War II. Gaining their trust was a difficult thing to achieve. “I was invited in early on, not to bring a camera crew, but we did sneak into the first of the safehouses. We began a conversation with the people who had survived these unspeakable horrors and about how we might be able to tell their stories.” With the people in these safehouses knowing they would be hunted for as long as they lived, France had to make sure he was taking every step imaginable to maintain their anonymity. “We had to work on this idea of how to maintain anonymity and how to move forward in a way that we were describing as being, not just consent but informed consent.”
While no one who participated in the HBO film pulled out of being a part of it, there was one close call with a woman who had initially not wanted to be disguised in the film. “It wasn’t until after we were nearly finished with the film and we were ready to premiere it, she called and said that she felt her circumstances had changed and she felt that her risk level had skyrocketed and she could no longer appear in the film.” This nearly caused the cancellation of the film’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. However, France and his team were able to make the necessary changes to help conceal the woman’s identity. “Luckily we were able to do it in a way that was part of the seamless language of the film and she was able to feel some great relief that her life remained as safe as she needed it to remain at that time.”
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