HBO will mark LGBTQ Pride Month by releasing a new documentary that sheds insight into the alleged abuse and persecution of queer people in the Russian republic of Chechnya.
Directed by David France, “Welcome To Chechnya” follows human rights activists David Isteev and Olga Baranova, who have organized underground support networks for LGBTQ people across Russia. The film includes testimonials from Chechens like “Grisha,” a gay man who claims to have been tortured for 10 days, and “Anya,” the lesbian daughter of a local official who says her uncle refuses to keep quiet about her sexuality unless she has sex with him.
Though such allegations have long been a source of global concern, the Kremlin has repeatedly refuted the claims. In 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, called them “a distortion of reality, merely a defamation.”
That sociopolitical divide presented a unique set of challenges for France, a former journalist who established himself as an authority on LGBTQ issues while at Newsweek and New York Magazine, among other publications.
Catch the trailer for “Welcome to Chechnya” below.
France scored a 2013 Oscar nomination for “How to Survive a Plague,” his debut film examining the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and ’90s. His 2017 followup, “The Death And Life Of Marsha P. Johnson,” profiled an oft-misunderstood figure in the 1969 Stonewall uprising.
He began developing “Welcome To Chechnya” after reading journalist Masha Gessen’s 2017 New Yorker feature, “The Gay Men Who Fled Chechnya’s Purge.” To ensure the safety of his Chechen subjects and their families, the filmmaker knew he’d have to obscure their identities on film. So he photographed 22 LGBTQ activists in New York and, through the use of innovative technology, superimposed their faces over those of the interviewees.
“I did not want to stylize them to the point of limiting the humanity they presented,” France told IndieWire. “I wanted the face doubling to be part of the editorial narrative of the story, that they are so deeply afraid and thoroughly pursued that they have to hide their faces.”
“Welcome To Chechnya” had its world premiere at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival in January, garnering near-universal raves from critics. Variety praised the film as “vital” and “pulse-quickening,” while The Hollywood Reporter called it a “chilling account of state-sponsored gay genocide in the making.”
“Welcome to Chechnya” airs on HBO June 30.