Two terrified boys are forced out of a car by members of a gang who taunt them with the question: “Were you kissing?” A paving stone is dropped on to the head of a lesbian by one of her relatives. A man’s screaming is captured as he is raped. These “trophy videos” are the hardest thing to watch in Welcome to Chechnya: The Gay Purge, a harrowing documentary about the persecution of LGBT people in the Russian republic. The videos were made by people who hunt down and and terrorise gay Chechens, with the backing of the government and security forces
“The leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, is waging a ‘blood-cleansing operation’ to eliminate all LGBT people,” says the director, David France, speaking by Zoom from his home in New York. Thanks to nationalism, religious fundamentalism and Vladimir Putin’s “gay propaganda” law, LGBT people have become scapegoats. As one of the gang members tells the boys in the car: “All our problems are because of people like you.”
France decided to make his film after reading a New Yorker article that described the heroic young activists of Russia’s LGBT network, who smuggle gay Chechens out of the state and into safe houses in Moscow or St Petersburg, then supervise their journeys out of Russia to claim asylum. The documentary contains dramatic footage, captured on iPhones and GoPro cameras, of gay Chechens known to the authorities making it past border guards and police to a fragile kind of safety.
“I was posing as a ridiculous American tourist,” France says. “I had two phones. One for tourist things, another for shooting the extractions. When they asked for my phone, I was able to show the one meant for their eyes, and convince them I was just a thrill-seeker.” Coming out in the UK weeks after the video of George Floyd’s murder inflamed the Black Lives Matter movement, Welcome to Chechnya shows yet again how technology can now be used to expose scenes the authorities would rather keep from view.
France’s biggest challenge was preserving his subjects’ anonymity. Homosexuality is stigmatised so much in Chechnya that families are actually pressured by the security forces to murder their gay members in “honour killings”. The sense of danger is stifling. When a desperate young man slits his wrists in a safe house, his handlers and fellow residents have to patch him up themselves, as calling an ambulance would alert the authorities to their clandestine operation.
France’s solution was to use something similar to deepfake technology, but in the cause of telling the truth. “We asked other real people – mostly activists, mostly LGBTQ, mostly New York – to let us film them. An algorithm then maps their faces over the faces of people in the film. It’s really a kind of digital transplant. The people are doing and saying and reacting to things in exactly the same way. They’re just wearing a different face. And in many instances, we also replaced their voices.”
At the film’s dramatic high point, one of these digital faces melts away as a subject discloses his true identity at a press conference. He announces that he is going to make a criminal complaint against the Russian authorities for failing to protect him, after he was captured and tortured in Grozny, the Chechen capital. Although the Russian courts immediately dismissed his case, claiming that there was no evidence, Maxim Lapunov is going to the European court of human rights, to date the only LGBT person who has dared to make such a challenge.
France says Lapunov’s position is still precarious. “He and his family moved from place to place during the prosecution of their criminal complaint, so they are still living mostly in the margins, hoping that they will see some sort of justice. I think it’s fair to say they are not yet in their ultimate destination country, where they can live a more carefree life. Right now they are not carefree at all.”
France started his career on the gay press in New York in the early 80s, just as gay men in the city started dying of a mysterious and incurable disease. Welcome to Chechnya is his third film. How to Survive a Plague – his first, which he later turned into an award-winning book – told the story of how a vociferous campaign by gay activist group Act Up relentlessly pushed the US medical establishment into making drugs available for people with Aids. The fact that it is now a manageable condition rather than a death sentence is a direct result of their determination.
France is currently making a film about Covid-19, and points out parallels, not least the fact that Anthony Fauci, as head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was in charge during both pandemics. “Globally, the researchers responsible for bringing about the miracle drugs in 1996 are still working today. There’s been a massive 30-year effort to find a vaccine against HIV, all of which has proved a failure so far. But the growth of knowledge in the field of vaccinology has been driven by the people doing HIV work. Those people immediately turned their attentions to Covid.”
Back then, France says, Fauci was seen as a villain by Aids activists. “He could have saved tens of thousands of lives by directing his research dollars into ways that would prevent the opportunistic infections which were actually killing people with Aids. He was financing all sorts of biochemical research into attacking HIV, and not prioritising any monies into keeping people alive. And it’s not that it didn’t occur to him – activists were protesting at his door, calling him a murderer. He wouldn’t do it based on some kind of academic interpretation of his job – he felt it wasn’t his place to tell researchers what to research.”
Today, France believes Fauci’s handling of coronavirus shows how much those Aids activists taught him. “I think the funding that’s coming out of the National Institute of Health is good. The budget priorities seem strong. What we would love is some sort of direct confrontation with Donald Trump, but he would argue that as long as he’s able to stay on the taskforce, he’s helping.”
Having lived through one deadly pandemic, does he see any grounds for optimism about this one? “The science is there to help us in a way it wasn’t when HIV hit,” he says. Back then, “the field of immunology was still pretty young, the field of human retroviruses was brand new. Now we have experience working with coronaviruses. People had anticipated a coronavirus like this, so there was some preparatory work. I know they are feeling confident. So that gives me confidence.” However, France believes that a vaccine for Covid-19 may prove as elusive as one for HIV. “I think that this coronavirus will be with us for ever and we have to find a way to accommodate it.”
There’s another echo of the Aids era in the stunning success of activists today – in this case Black Lives Matter exposing structural bigotry, not least in matters of health provision, given that black people are far more likely to die of Covid-19. “I know that Black Lives Matter has studied the Act Up model of activism,” says France, pointing out that its leadership includes queer and trans people.
What makes a social justice movement successful? “Act Up teaches us that it’s not enough to demand something from others. The movement – which started as an organising idea to bring people to the streets to have their voices heard – had to join as partners with the people who could make the change. Black Lives Matter has been able to use the ability to fill the streets as a way to force doors open for the leadership to sit at the table.”
In some ways, the spirits of Black Lives Matter and Act Up converge in the figure of Marsha P Johnson, the black trans woman who was at the Stonewall riot in 1969, which sparked the modern movement for gay rights. The subject of France’s 2016 film, The Death and Life of Marsha P Johnson, drowned in murky circumstances in 1992. Her death was ruled a suicide and not properly investigated by the NYPD, but most of her friends believe she was murdered.
Johnson – and her Latinx sidekick Sylvia Rivera, who crashed the 1973 New York gay pride parade to excoriate its middle-class whiteness and desire to marginalise trans people – loudly expressed the belief that liberation would only be possible when all LGBT people around the world were free. “It’s still illegal to be gay in 70 countries,” says France. “And in eight or more, it’s punishable by death. What’s going on in Chechnya is a campaign to root out and murder anybody they think is LGBTQ.” And while that’s the case, the fight must go on.