If you’ve never seen Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s interview with HBO Real Sports, it’s one of the more chilling things you’ll ever watch. HBO’s David Scott, reporting on Kadyrov’s official promotion of MMA and support of many high profile fighters, asks the stocky Kadyrov, wearing some hybrid of hoodie and military fatigues and looking like “mob henchman” straight out of central casting, about the reported arrests and torture of gay Chechens in the Russian republic Kadyrov runs. To which Kadyrov laughs menacingly to his friends off camera (“laughs menacingly” is normally a cliché of bad fiction but in this case 100% apt) and says “Nonsense. We don’t have such people here.”
It’s impossible, in that moment, not to fear for the reporter’s safety. For much of the interview, Kadyrov looks as if he’s pondering hitting the button for the trap door that will drop Scott, who looks rightly terrified, into a pit full of snakes. And that was just a reporter. Now imagine that you’re a gay Chechen and your terrifying president just denied your very existence before the entire world.
That’s the reality of life for the people profiled in David France’s intense new documentary for HBO, Welcome To Chechnya. France, a veteran investigative reporter who had a hit with his first documentary, 2012’s How To Survive A Plague, this time around uses newfangled digital trickery to keep the identities of his subjects hidden — and hopefully safe from reprisal. It’s essentially the same deepfake technology people on sketchy message boards use to paste their favorite celebrities into porn, this time employed to protect the members of a gay underground railroad smuggling LGBTQ Chechens and Russians out of the country to some place safe. Where exactly, the film can’t say, or else it might cease being safe.
The digital faces give the entire thing an eerie, uncanny valley feel, where everything seems both real and not real. You see the emotions on the people’s faces, much better than if they’d been darkened or blurred, but only sort of, like an odd digital kabuki. It means we can’t ever get comfortable watching it, nor forget what these people are risking, or accept what we’re seeing at face value. In that way, our reality while we watch it mirrors theirs, having to try to determine what’s real through a haze of abstraction.
It’s a hell of a trick. The faces were real people, other activists who had “lent” their likenesses to the film (France says he wanted to keep it “in the language of activism”) — though I do wonder what it would’ve been like if he’d used, say, Tom Hanks or another famous person as the face of a gay Chechen fleeing for his life. Would people care more? Would it be too weird? France isn’t much interested in lightness or irony though, preferring to keep the focus of his story on stopping a genocide. Probably for the best.
What Welcome To Chechnya most drives home is the day-to-day reality of living under authoritarian rule, and especially the day-to-day reality of those who might happen to run afoul of authoritarian rule. Which of course queer people do in Chechnya simply by existing. Our simplistic conception of authoritarianism, I think, is a system with more rules, and harsher punishments for violating those rules. But in reality it’s the arbitrariness and caprice that’s as terrifying as the rigidity. Putin (who installed Kadyrov as president in 2007) set the LGBTQ community back decades with just one law, making it illegal to “promote homosexual behavior among minors.” This has had many ripple effects, effectively condoning all kinds of discrimination, not to mention outright violence.
Likewise, Putin could almost certainly stop Chechnya’s “gay purge” with one phone call, but authorities won’t acknowledge that such a policy even exists, let alone defend it. This policy of intimidation and terror (if not outright liquidation), like many things in an authoritarian system, lives entirely in an unacknowledged grey area. Are queer Russians and Chechens really in mortal danger even after they flee the country? What about their families still there? It’s impossible to distinguish legitimate fear from paranoia in an authoritarian system, that’s what makes it such a mindfuck. It’s another mechanism of control. Welcome To Chechnya, while kind of a nightmarish watch, conveys this feeling effectively.
So, I guess the obvious question is, how long did the digital masking take and how expensive was it? Was it prohibitive in terms of making the doc?
DAVID FRANCE: Well, it was expensive, obviously, but all VFX work is expensive. We, in addition, had to develop the program and the software, so that added to some of the burden on us financially. But it’s not as expensive as a Hollywood face replacement approach. This was done not by hand but by artificial intelligence, in a deep machine learning environment. We were able to cut some corners by automating the process. And that’s, I think what the really remarkable aspect of this new filmmaker tool is. It makes this kind of VFX affordable for documentary filmmakers who are working on such limited budgets.
The disguises that you used, those were real people that lent their face for use in this?
Oh yeah. They were people that we approached and said, “There are people who are being hunted around the globe. Would you be willing to put your face on theirs so that you will be shielding them, and protecting them from revelation and potential death? But it might also mean bringing some risk to yourself.” So they agreed to do it, even though it was not without risk. It was really an interesting act of activism to be willing to do this, to go to this length to help save a life.
Did you ever think about using Kadyrov or Putin’s faces on there? Or maybe some of the people who are actually masterminding this stuff?
No, actually, because we wanted… Certainly, we were not trying to have fun with this approach, but to find a way to allow an audience to feel the journey of the people, which was a tragic journey. These are people who have survived unspeakable brutality and have been forced to, even as young people, to commit to the rest of their life, living in the shadows. Living in distant lands, never far enough away from the hot breath of Kadyrov and his people on their neck. So what we tried to accomplish was to find faces that were similar in age to the people who I had filmed, but really dissimilar in facial structure and racial background. There were a number of Mex people whose faces are used in this film, a number of African Americans. And other racially distinct activists whose faces bear no resemblance whatsoever to the Chechen faces that we covered.
Did you ever think about having actors, maybe people that would be recognizable to the audience?
No, we didn’t. The reason we didn’t go to famous actors is because I wanted to keep this in the language of activism. So the people who lent their faces were mostly people that we found on Instagram, or by going to demonstrations, that have been regular features. In front of the Russian embassy, and elsewhere, and New York, of people who are speaking up in defense of the Chechen victims. And in defense of LGBTQ refugees across the globe. It was an issue that we knew was close to their hearts. We weren’t telling anybody that we were working on this film, we were working in total secrecy. So we brought them into our confidence, knowing that they would understand why we are being so secretive, and understand the stakes of what we were asking them to do.
The shooting, how did it work? Were you actually in country for that, supervising all your camera people?
I was, but it’s a mistake to say all my camera people. We were just me and a camera operator who was also the producer on the Russian production, and that’s Askold Kurov. We had no professional sound equipment, we had no sound engineer. We had no professional video cameras, we were using a consumer camera. An out of the box Sony that we could just carry in a backpack, and if we were discovered carrying it, it wouldn’t be at all suspicious. We were just tourists taking holiday photographs and video, that was our cover story, and that was what allowed us to sneak in and out of the various portals for this underground network without detection.
Was that your only cover, just that you were tourists?
That was my principal cover story because in fact, I had a tourist visa and I was traveling in and out of Russia on a regular basis. Really getting to know the country and making sure that I gathered with me on each trip, evidence of my touristic interests. I would take the iconic photographs on my phone, I would buy tickets to museums and galleries, and whatnot. And make sure I had those stubs in my pocket so if asked, I would have some evidence that what I said I was doing, I was actually doing.
Is there a separate border to get from Russia to Chechnya? Do you need a separate visa, a separate story there?
No, there’s not a true border. It’s like crossing from New Jersey to Delaware, except that there’s really a towering cultural divide between the rest of Russia and Chechnya. And there is a virtual border there that is patrolled by Chechen security forces who set up periodic checkpoints. There’s no basis in law for them to do that, but they do it anyway and they are permitted to do it by Russian authorities. Coming into the Republic and leaving the Republic, you are likely to pass through a multitude of checkpoints and hopefully make it through on either side. We were stopped only once, coming out of the Republic. When our car was stopped and they discovered that there was an American in the car, which is very unusual in that closed area. So they detained me for a period of questioning, to ascertain what I was doing there and why I was there. They just really couldn’t wrap their heads around it. They were ultimately convinced that I was this carefree American tourist who was stumbling his way through the Caucasus and senselessly seeking my thrills. And bringing my new friends from Moscow along with me, whom I convinced with some pile of money to be my tour guides and translators — that was our story, and it was certainly conceivable. And we were able to talk our way out of that detention quite quickly. So, it was an effective ruse.
You didn’t have to bribe anyone or anything?
No. We were not prepared to bribe anybody. We were only prepared to talk about my undying interest in the North Caucasus, and Chechnya in particular.
You said it was very closed. What did it feel like to be there? How closed off did it feel?
It is a place where it’s hard to breathe and when you cross the mountains to get there, you feel the political and cultural squeezing that is exercised by the regime. You see it in the faces of people you pass, and there are not many people out walking. It’s not a place where people experience a life outdoors, the way you would expect almost anywhere else. Women are kept under very, very tight control, and you get a sense of that, a feeling for that in their absence. And you also feel the penetrating surveillance that goes on there. And on these missions, the activists are quick to enter and quick to leave. There is no lingering in the middle.
You had a [title] where it said the Trump administration hasn’t accepted any of these refugees from Chechnya. Is that a new policy? Was it different under Obama?
Well, Trump took office in January 2017, and this whole miserable horror broke into the news in April of 2017. So there was no moment of opportunity for the Obama administration to respond to the atrocities there. The Obama administration was indeed restrictive of immigration and was not an open borders, utopian practitioner of response to humanitarian concerns. But it was nothing like what happened when Trump came in. The very first thing he announced was that he was going to ban Muslims traveling into the country, and the Chechen people are Muslim by and large. So immediately, that was a problem. But also from day one, the Trump administration has declared putting the brakes on and reversing where possible, the advances of the LGBTQ community.
The Obama administration attached for the first time, in a very moving way, the LGBTQ rights to its portfolio of human rights, that it had been used as a measuring tool for foreign policy. That was the innovation of Secretary Clinton when she was running the State Department, and it really made a difference for queer life around the globe. That was reversed on day one of the Trump administration. And then within just a few months, there came this need to respond to what was happening [in Chechnya]. And there’s no willingness from Washington to do anything about it. In fact, Trump has never said anything about it. Here we have, the only time in the world since Hitler, that the LGBTQ community in a particular region is being identified in a government-sponsored and architected campaign, for detention, torture, and liquidation. Literally, this is like a return to Hitler’s Germany and Trump has not said anything about it. Only one member of his administration has spoken about it publicly, and she “expressed concern.” I mean, that was it. That was Nikki Haley at the UN. The story that we tell in Welcome to Chechnya is really a medieval story of torture and abuse of power. But it’s also a medieval story about the retrenchment and right-wing movement of the American government. To not just ignore, but to enable this kind of criminal campaign and genocide to go on unanswered.
You got to into it a little bit in the movie, but what was the origin story for this policy in Chechnya? There was a drug bust or something?
That’s exactly it. Yeah, there was a drug bust in Grozny, and this is a brutal regime even before the anti-queer campaign. They seized cell phones from people [they arrested] and were violently interrogating them. And they discovered on one of the men’s cell phones incontrovertible evidence that he was gay and in communication with other gay people. And this was, for them, the tip of an iceberg. They were able to force him through torture, to reveal the identities of the other people he knew, and brought them in and tortured them to do the same. That’s the foundation of this so-called blood cleansing campaign that Kadyrov has publicly endorsed and admitted to, and has taken no responsibility for.
So their idea is that being homosexual, they’re wrapped up in a gay organized crime ring or something?
No, no, no. Their idea is just — and it’s a deranged idea — the discovery of a gay man in their midst, who was maybe cultivating a community of people. It’s a place where you can’t live as a gay person. You can’t declare your love publicly for a member of your same gender. You can’t even theoretically argue in favor of the community without risking your life, that has always been true. But here was a guy who had a community of friends, a network. And that network became very apparent in his contacts on his phone. And that was a step beyond, a step too far for the Grozny government, for the Kadyrov government. It inspired in them this notion that there was a sizeable presence in the Chechen Republic of queer folks. And they were going to do what they could to eliminate them from life in Chechnya.