Available on the Arte.tv site, the feature film Welcome to Chechnya is a chilling immersion in the daily life of a network of activists helping LGBTQI + people in this dreaded region of Russia. He won an award at the Bafta 2021.
Crowned with rave reviews since its screening at Sundance last year, Welcome to Chechnya: The Gay Purge – who won a prize at the ceremony on Sunday June 6 of Bafta 2021 (the British equivalent of the Caesar) – is finally available in France on the Arte.tv site. Behind this falsely welcoming title, the documentary shines its cameras on the mass persecutions of which homosexuals are victims on Chechen soil (southwest of the Russian Federation).
A moving dive on a human scale into the life of a group of refugees, but also of valiant Russian activists who help them to escape from a country that exterminates them. We see in particular Maxim Lapunov (or Maxime Lapunov in French version), who was the first victim of this purge to speak with his face uncovered. TÊTU was able to discuss this unmissable film with its director, the American David France.
READ ALSO: Maxim Lapunov, first gay to openly file a complaint against the Chechen authorities
What was the trigger that prompted you to work on Welcome to Chechnya ?
David France: I remember hearing about what was going on there in April 2019. A reporter for an independent newspaper in Moscow pulled out the story, citing a number of survivors. It sparked anger among political leaders around the world. In some, not all. My country [les États-Unis, ndlr] was silent for a while at the very beginning. But I didn’t really care about it before an article from New Yorker focused on the work of activists helping these people escape their country. It reminded me of what happened in Europe under the Nazi regime. I was shocked to realize that this kind of bravery was still needed today. That’s why I started working on the film: to expose the risks these activists take on a daily basis.
How did you come into contact with the Chechen activists?
I contacted Masha Gessen who wrote the article for New Yorker. He is a renowned exiled journalist whom I have known for nearly twenty years because we live in the same environment. I called her to tell her about the project and she thought it was a good idea. We met on a Zoom call with activists to discuss this further. They were very ready but were not convinced that everything could be set up in a secure way, especially in shelters. I then traveled to Moscow shortly after.
Did you face any difficulties or limitations while filming the documentary?
I never set a limit. There were times when activists told us to stop filming when we were faced with dangerous situations. But everything we did was very, very risky anyway. As for the safety of my team and I, we were working closely with two UK companies advising us. We had a third, in the United States, which also advised us so that the images we recorded could not be accessible by just anyone.
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How long have you worked on this project?
Masha’s article came out in July 2017 and I was starting filming in August, so it was really quick. I went to Moscow for the weekend and ended up staying for a month filming what was going on. I then continued to film within the network for a total of eighteen months. It then took an additional year to edit the film, then to carry out the post-production in order to guarantee the anonymity of the people we see on the screen.
“I contacted activists to ask them if they would agree to become human shields to preserve the identity of people in real danger of death”
On this point, the documentary uses advanced technology to protect the identity of people in front of the camera while preserving human and spontaneous reactions.
This technique did not exist before that. Some Hollywood films had used it, but only occasionally. It is laborious work that is done shot by shot and it was impossible for us to consider that. We then realized that we could use artificial intelligence to do the job: we had to use the face of another person and paste it with an algorithm, pixel by pixel, on that of a person in the film. Once we had the method, I contacted New York activists, mostly queer, to ask if they would agree to become human shields to preserve the identity of people in real danger of death. . Once selected, they came for data capture sessions where they were filmed from all possible angles. There is no acting game, we simply created data for the algorithm to use.
As an LGBTQI + individual, it’s hard to see such atrocities on screen and I imagine it’s even harder to witness them in person. How did you approach this shoot as a whole?
I was obviously furious. But I knew I had a purpose and that I had the potential to expose these crimes and individuals. The fact that I took action gave me the courage to witness it all, even if it was never easy. Of course, these crimes have not stopped. But since its release, the film has pushed the US government, the European Union, the UK to sanction the Chechen government as well as the Russian government. All of this results from our film. When you hear about these atrocities, the worst thing is to feel helpless. I know I didn’t feel helpless in any way: We wanted to involve the audience. We wanted the public to be heard and to demand that these injustices stop.
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There are some very difficult moments to watch during the documentary, like when one of the refugees tries to end his life. How to react in such situations?
As the film went on, I remembered that I was good at one thing: making a documentary. When this young man tried to kill himself, I was not in a position where I could contribute anything. In what I consider to be one of the darkest chapters in contemporary queer history, I constantly saw love. I constantly saw this unique community, made up of strangers who support each other with incredible love. That’s what I saw when this boy cut his veins: the love people had for him.
Are you still in contact with the various activists we see in the documentary?
Oh yes ! Maxim and Bodgan are some of my best friends. I love these guys. I admire them deeply.
How do you get back to a normal life after witnessing everything you have seen for the purposes of this documentary?
This is an interesting question. It was a difficult return to normal, made all the more complicated by the pandemic. We were in full promo for the film, we even went to the Berlinale. And there, all of a sudden, we are sent home. It was only then that the whole team realized the impact of this trauma on our lives, in addition to those terrifying first months of Covid. In fact, we started doing weekly group therapy together. We talked about the weight that all these stories represented and the responsibility of these lives that we help protect, the secrets that we keep… Having been separated from each other in this way was very traumatic and these wounds have not finished. to cure.
>> Welcome to Chechnya, available on arte.tv, next broadcast on Arte on May 18
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Photo credit: Public Square Films
We want to give thanks to the author of this short article for this remarkable material
“Welcome to Chechnya”: a Bafta for the film on the anti-gay purge