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David France talks about how he made “Welcome to Chechnya”, a harrowing yet inspiring documentary ...
2021-01-17 09:00:00

That’s What Heroes Are
An Interview with David France

"Welcome to Chechnya". Courtesy of HBO GO
That’s What Heroes Are
That’s What Heroes Are

Accomplished investigative journalist David France came to Chechnya – one of the republics of Russia consigned to oblivion in the collective Western consciousness – with the intention of documenting the ongoing genocide of homosexual men and women. He certainly managed to do so, as Welcome to Chechnya is an emotionally harrowing cinematic exposé of the malicious and inhumane government-driven hunt for people who love differently than what is culturally and socially accepted. Nonetheless, it was in the midst of this horror that France found a shimmer of light: a group of activists who risk their lives to save a tiny fraction of those persecuted and help them start anew in a number of distant countries.

Read in 12 minutes

Dariusz Kuźma: You apparently made the film during a period of 18 months, filled with risky trips to Chechnya and Russia, where you had to work undercover for most of the time.

David France: I started working on the project after reading an article in The New Yorker about this underground network of activists who were doing their best to rescue LGBTQ people from the blood cleansing campaign that was going on in Chechnya. So, I applied for a tourist visa and went there, officially to admire the harsh beauty of Russia, unofficially to meet people who were running that network and record what they were doing. Obviously, it had to be done in a clandestine manner; each time I travelled into the country was for another aspect of tourism. I made sure to do lots of photos, buy tickets to museums, and take varying routes to meet the activists.

You being an American citizen somehow helped? During extractions, for example?

It did, I was the operation’s MacGuffin. No-one wanted an international scandal on their hands, so my presence had the effect that guards were watching me and not the activists or the people being extracted. We didn’t use typical documentary equipment; rather small video cameras, cell phones, Go Pros, hidden cameras, etc. It wasn’t easy, we were constantly concerned that anything we did might inadvertently expose what was really going on. We had to be extremely careful. We created a hundred protocols to answer all aspects of film-making to anticipate any errors we might make. Luckily, nothing we did revealed the team’s efforts. Lives were saved.

In the film, you stress that finding out your child is homosexual is for Chechens a shame so strong that it can only be washed by blood. What social, cultural or religious background does the cleansing have?

It certainly has some foundation in the republic’s culture. Chechnya is a part of the world that has not been touched by the modern LGBTQ rights movement – it is not unlike the United States in the 1920s and 1930s. The country is isolated geographically and culturally, with no real ongoing exchange with the rest of the world. It has its own language and is populated almost entirely by indigenous Chechens. There are cultural replications of Western culture, like a large shopping mall and burger shops, but everything is uniquely Chechen. It is important to understand that what is happening there is subjected to an accumulation of hatred that’s coming from the Kremlin. Putin has weaponized hatred as a political tool for his power grab. There was a visible increase in liberal attitudes in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union, but with Putin’s rise to power, the country returned to this Cold War concept of scapegoating the queer community as a cynical way of scaring voters into backing an authoritarian regime. We see it used to the extreme in places like Chechnya, especially that the country’s leadership is appointed by Putin.

"Welcome to Chechnya". Courtesy of HBO GO
"Welcome to Chechnya". Courtesy of HBO GO

No religious undertones there?

I honestly don’t believe it’s religion. I think this form of control finds ways to twist religion to its own aims and purposes. Just like Putin has done with his partnership with the Russian Orthodox Church to stop any sense of advancement that LGBTQ people have had over the last couple of decades. It’s about power, concentration of power for power’s sake. You give people power and it makes them crazy. Even in the United States, where the outgoing administration have really backtracked on gender rights. What’s scary is that we see this idea of cleansing radiating from Russia and Chechnya into Poland, Hungary, Ukraine, even parts of Africa. This has truly become a real global problem.

While I watched the film, I could not help but wonder that many Poles would approve of the ‘Chechen solution’. Yet I would not think it is specifically radiating from Chechnya. Poland has quite a history in these things.

Well, it is not something that originated in modern Russia or Chechnya, this idea of some people being too different from what other people consider to be normal. It finds ways to work with whatever is on the ground. Religion might be a good example. In parts of Africa, the hatred comes from Evangelical Christianity, in Chechnya it’s Islam, in Poland it’s Catholic fundamentalism. But it has one real aim: to serve populist leaders who take advantage of this kind of chaos. You know, before I heard about what’s happening in Chechnya, I thought that we would never return to things like this, that we had vanquished this kind of hatred in the service of political power. I was obviously wrong. We need to stay vigilant at all times.

How can we distinguish the real monsters from the confused people who are simply a by-product of an ongoing struggle for power?

The real monsters are always those who persuade and permit such acts of violence. In Chechnya, this is a government-enforced campaign led by Ramzan Kadyrov and his team, but what began in a small circle of perpetrators has been moved down to the larger population by Kadyrov’s security forces putting pressure on families to find their queer relatives and either kill them or deliver them to the government’s liquidation machine. If some family members are suspected of having known about queer relatives and doing nothing, the Chechen government intimidate them until they tell everything, or help to bring those people back into Chechnya. This is a blood cleansing through recruiting the vast population of Chechnya to be a part of it.

I find it beyond belief that even amid such horror, women still have it worse than men…

Well, saying that Chechnya is a male-dominated, clan-based society hardly gets to what it is to be a woman in there. For example, it is not possible for women to travel alone. And by that I mean even going to school or to a movie theatre. They are not permitted culturally and politically to go on their own. They always have to be escorted by a brother, a father, a male relative, even when they’re in a group of young women. That’s why when they come to realize that in order to survive they have to leave the country forever, they need an entire operation to get them out. Some, like Anya in the film, need to be extracted from Russia within a number of hours, as their parents are well connected and will have their names on the watchlists. For others, it is not as essential to escape so quickly, instead they’re brought to the safe house system in Russia, where they await invitation by foreign embassies to have them relocated to their new countries.

You show fragments of intercepted footage of real beatings, you digitally disguised some characters so as not to reveal their identity, but was there a line you did not want to cross in the film?

We kept saying that there were aspects of that footage that if shown would make the audience complicit with the crimes. And that was our measurement: not to expose the horrors to the extent that the material becomes exploitation rather than exposition. We had lengthy conversations about individual frames of the footage and used it very judiciously. We didn’t edit it so much as redacted it to protect the viewer from the sight, to protect the victims from further exploitation. But to make the crimes unmistakable and unforgettable.

"Welcome to Chechnya". Courtesy of HBO GO
"Welcome to Chechnya". Courtesy of HBO GO

How would you describe the activists after working with them for so long? They are a mixed group of musicians, journalist, photographers, teachers and others.

Well, during my time there I found three things quite astonishing. First, that any crime against humanity like the one we’re seeing in Chechnya could actually be taking place today. Second, that governments around the world aren’t condemning it with their loudest voices. And third, that ordinary people in Russia have stood up to do these extraordinary things. I think that maybe that’s what heroes are: people who hadn’t been training all their lives for this, but couldn’t just do nothing. The first person I contacted was Olga Baranova, who had made her name in advertising, but as a member of the LGBTQ community was mortified about what’s going on in Chechnya. She set up the first shelter, thinking a small trickle of people would come through. Instead she was overwhelmed by the number of people that she and her growing network needed to take care of.

The support has to be incredible.

It is. You know, going to Chechnya I honestly expected to be terrified, that I would recoil from the horrors of what’s happening there, that my heart would be broken by meeting the survivors and hearing their stories of tortures and beatings. Instead, I felt a sense of love that came out from the shelter and emanated from the activists. An overwhelming sense of a community embracing humanity in the most extreme ways and responding to the genocide with an open heart. I hope that shows in the film, that these are people taking care of themselves when no-one else is doing anything. Even under death threats. There’s a hit list of people in the LGBTQ community that have been targetted, they are all on it. And yet they continue the work, which is just remarkable. It taught me more about the human soul than anything I’ve witnessed in the past.

David Isteev, the Russian LGBT Network’s Crisis Response Coordinator, says at one point that this story needs a proper ending, but it is still far away. Maybe it is just me being naïve, but how can a society with so much blood on its hands still function normally? There has to be a crack somewhere, something that will make people realize what they are doing.

That’s such a huge question – how do we recover from such horror? How do we find justice and move on? What David is saying is that neither he nor his organization can continue to rescue people one at a time. By conservative estimates, there are more than 40,000 queer people living in Chechnya. As we both know, LGBTQ people are born every day, in every culture, no matter who the leader is, no matter how perverse their leadership is. Rescuing people in this way simply cannot solve the problem. Kadyrov has to be brought up on charges. And they have to be public charges in order to bring this moment of reckoning to the population at large. We saw what happened after the fall of Hitler’s regime. We saw the power of truth and reconciliation in Chile and South Africa. You can’t walk away from a history like this without grappling publicly and transparently with it. I think it will not be enough just to force Kadyrov to stop, although that’s the first thing we have to do. Then we have to seek justice for all the people who’ve been harmed, and bring the community into that process, so that everybody knows what happened and everybody has to come to their own personal reckoning. I don’t think there’s any other way.

I do not think a documentary can change the world, that any film can change the world, but I believe that it can stir a number of reactions that can lead to small changes. Do you think Welcome to Chechnya may achieve such a feat?

I totally agree with you, a documentary can’t cause a revolution, my film won’t lead to the arrest of Kadyrov. But documentary films have incredible and outsized power. I say that as a relatively new film-maker. I came from being a print journalist writing for the likes of The New York Times and Newsweek. I also authored books. But I’ve been really surprised and impressed by how much more power a documentary film has than other media I’ve used in the past. What Welcome to Chechnya can and is doing is reach ordinary people with news of what’s happening there. So many people still don’t know about this genocide in the making, but the bravery of the activists on the ground have really inspired so many to stand up, to put pressure on their governments to do something, to put pressure on themselves to organize and add their voices to the outcry.

Can this impact be felt politically, too?

It certainly has in the United States. You see, the Trump administration had done nothing about the original news reports through three years of this campaign of hatred, but after the film came out we organized a screening for lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Within the next 72 hours the State Department issued sanctions against Kadyrov, specifically citing anti-LGBTQ crimes. There were also screenings in the European Parliament and the United Nations, and they have taken up the issue in a serious manner. I believe there’s going to be an official UN investigation. These are little things, but they also are a testament to the medium itself – that a documentary can slowly bring the Chechen horrors into the political and cultural consciousness. Which was my goal from the very beginning.

"Welcome to Chechnya". Courtesy of HBO GO
"Welcome to Chechnya". Courtesy of HBO GO

Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.

The documentary “Welcome to Chechnya” is available on HBO and HBO Go.

Arranging an interview equals dozens of phone calls, hours of preparation and lots of stress. Ultimately, though, more often than not the conversations we have with our interviewees are immensely enjoyable. We hope you’ve also enjoyed reading this interview. Thank you for visiting our website! Please support PRZEKRÓJ Foundation.

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Dariusz Kuźma

is a film journalist, translator, regular contributor to the Camerimage film festival and one of its selectors. He has a degree in English Studies and American Studies. He is passionate about world cinema and unconventional television series. His articles have been published by numerous Polish magazines and online media.