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Going behind the scenes as queer Chechens were rescued

A new interview describes the making of “Welcome to Chechnya”, a documentary that tracks the courageous effort to save Chechnya’s queer community from state-sanctioned persecution.

Activist Maxim Lapunov reunites with his partner after fleeing Chechnya. Lapunov was detained for 12 days by police, during which time he alleges he was beaten, tortured and raped. (Photo courtesy of HBO)

In the interview, Oscar-nominated director David France tells about “Welcome to Chechnya”, including its cutting-edge technology for concealing speakers’ identities, and the film’s impact: “It’s engendering a real wave of empathy for LGBTQ Russians”.

These are excerpts from the Hollywood Reporter article and interview:

David France (Photo courtesy of Metro Weekly)

In early 2017, reports began to emerge out of Chechnya that authorities were detaining gay men and subjecting them to torture and humiliation. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov immediately repudiated the claims (he maintains that there are no LGBTQ individuals in Chechnya), but the documentary evidence of abuse is impossible to deny.

In response to the anti-gay purges, a group of queer activists in Russia began an underground operation to evacuate queer Chechens and place them in safe houses in Moscow until they could flee the country. Upon hearing about this movement, journalist and filmmaker David France (an Oscar nominee for 2012’s “How to Survive a Plague”) flew to Russia to embed himself with the activists, capturing their life-threatening work with GoPros and camera phones. The result is “Welcome to Chechnya”, which landed on HBO in June following its premiere at Sundance.

The film is as heartbreaking as it is terrifying — in one particularly tense sequence, France follows a team on a rescue mission to save a young lesbian whose uncle had threatened to out her, which would likely result in her murder.

To protect the identities of these queer Chechens, France incorporated an A.I. digital masking technology that covered the survivors with computer-generated, hyper-realistic faces. In a dramatic moment, one such digital mask dissolves when survivor Maxim Lapunov goes public about his arrest and torture.

Q: What’s it like to be on the ground and participate in this work? You were documenting it, but I imagine there was no way to avoid feeling like you were part of this crusade.

A: Once you’re on the inside, you’re no longer an independent observer. I was as frightened inside those safe houses as everybody else was. … After a while, my presence became an open part of the operation itself. I was this American guy sitting right across the restaurant from an extraction. I was the distraction — I would be fumbling around with my cellphone and making something of a spectacle of myself while enabling the work that they were doing. …

Joining this group of people made me realize that I’ve connected with them in a way that has much more responsibility. And an obligation. I feel like I’ve become part of this history, having lived 18 months embedded in this underground system. I didn’t just observe it, and that weighs heavily. We might be bound together by the experience in a way that [I’ve never experienced in my] professional life. We’ve become family in a way that I wasn’t expecting, In some ways I cherish that, and in some ways I know it’s a burden about this kind of work. I still dream about them. They’re still not safe, and I still feel the need to help protect them.

The face of Maxim Lapunov is obscured by a digital face of a Latino man (right), “which is not a face you would see in Russia,” France explains. (Photo courtesy of HBO)

Q: The digital masking you used to conceal the subjects’ identities was a fascinating element. How did you decide to use this technology?

A: The first thing I thought of using was rotoscoping animation, carving out the image within the frame and replacing it with a filter to make it look cartoony. I had a little clip on my cellphone when I went into the shelter system for the first time to show people. Many of these survivors are relatively young, and they were charmed by the idea of being presented as cartoons. But it didn’t really make them unrecognizable, it made them into caricatures of themselves — in a way, that made them even more recognizable. It exaggerated their physicality, so anyone who knew them would be able to figure it out.

It wasn’t until we were pitched on the idea that you could do a kind of a reverse process, using deep fake technology, that it started to seem like this was going to be possible. Literally, it changed the person’s face altogether to put this other head on it. And that’s the first moment that we thought this was actually going to be possible. Not probable, because it was so expensive, and all done by hand. Then we dug deeper and found somebody who was willing to work with us to try to find a way to automate it. That’s what made this work — it’s artificial intelligence and machine learning. It gave us something that we could bring back to all of the survivors. Even they didn’t recognize themselves. …

Q: What has the international response to the film been like?

A: We got an instant reaction from the government in Chechnya. They sponsored a long piece on state-controlled television denouncing the documentary. I think they called it “a filthy and vile provocation,” repeating their denial that they’re engaged in any sort of campaign against queer Chechens because, as they go on to say, there’s no such thing and never could be such a thing. That’s the denial that we hope the film would create evidence against.

On the other hand, the film has been picked up and used by activists in a powerful way. When the trailer dropped over the summer, there were more than a million views inside Russia within 72 hours. People were going wild; the news of what was happening in Chechnya had been curtailed inside the country. That helped us develop an argument to bring to the BBC News Russian service that there was an audience for this. Because it [was aired] through the news service, we were able to bypass the cultural censors in Russia and bring the film into every household in the country.

We know that we’re reaching ordinary Russians with stories about what’s happening in their communities, and we see on social media that it’s engendering a real wave of empathy for LGBTQ Russians.

Change happens in little ways, but we’re hoping this will have a big impact. It was shown over the summer in Washington; [Maryland Congressman] Steny Hoyer did an introduction and convened with his colleagues on the Hill. Within a few days, the State Department issued sanctions against [Chechen leader] Ramzan Kadyrov for these crimes. That was a huge step, almost three years after the crimes — and surprising given the administration. But the evidence is too indisputable. Just in the last two weeks, the U.K. has issued a round of sanctions; the U.S. Treasury Department invoked the Magnitsky Act and moved against various businesses connected with the Chechen leaders that helped bring money into the area. For example, those sanctions affected the mixed martial arts team in Chechnya, which is really the pride of the Kadyrov regime. It’s made it impossible for that team to function outside of the Russian Federation. The U.K. announcement cited the film as being the evidence that Chechnya and Russia has flatly denied exists.

David France hid alongside survivors in Moscow safe houses while filming ‘Welcome to Chechnya.’ (Photo courtesy of HBO)

Q: It’s hard to imagine being in these activists’ and survivors’ shoes, much less understand how they manage to keep pushing forward. But you captured moments of joy in their lives, which I imagine is what motivates them to keep fighting.

A: That’s what makes them survivors. I found it remarkable that when they arrive in the shelter system, for many of them it’s the first time in their lives they experienced a sense of gay identity. That was so out of reach for them in the lives that they had lived up until that point — they didn’t have a sense of identity or community. That was illuminated so brightly inside that shelter system, this safe space for people to get to know themselves and to see from the activists around them examples of older community members pulling together and building lives around their sense of liberty. That’s one of the biggest joys that you see in the faces of the people as they enter the system. The shelter system is the possibility of a fully integrated life.

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Written by Colin Stewart

Colin Stewart is a 45-year journalism veteran living in Southern California. After his retirement from paid newspaper work in 2011, he launched Erasing 76 Crimes and helped with the Spirit of 76 campaign that assembled a multi-national team of 26 LGBTI rights activists to advocate for change during the International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C., in July 2012. He is the president of the St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation, which supports LGBTQ+ rights advocacy journalism, including the Erasing 76 Crimes news site and the African Human Rights Media Network. Contact him via Twitter @76crimes or by email at info@76crimes.com. Mailing address: 21 Marseille, Laguna Niguel CA 92677 USA.

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