'Welcome to Chechnya' Director on Doc's Impact: "It's Engendering a Real Wave of Empathy for LGBTQ Russians"

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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.

France spoke to THR about his experience hiding alongside these survivors, the technical efforts to hide their identities and the international response to his documentary.