A person is holding a rainbow colored rose.

New documentary follows LGBTQ people fleeing persecution in Chechnya

In early 2017, stories began emerging on how Chechen authorities were persecuting the LGBTQ community. The World speaks to director David French on his new film, "Welcome to Chechnya," which gives an inside look at the abuse and torture faced by the republic's LGBTQ people and those who try to help them escape.

The World

Human rights violations have been reported in the Chechnya for decades. But it wasn’t until 2017 that the world started to better understand the abuses against gay, lesbian and transgender people living in the republic, which is part of the Russian Federation.  

A new HBO film, “Welcome to Chechnya,” documents the stories of persecuted LGBTQ people in Chechnya and the crisis workers who try to help them escape. It airs June 30 at 10 p.m. Eastern time.

Director David France, who also directed the 2012 film “How to Survive a Plague,” said it’s important to pay attention to the many atrocities happening around the world. But what’s happening in Chechnya is particularly horrific. 

“This is one that has a particularly resonant horror to it," France told The World. "It's a top-down, government-controlled, government-mandated campaign to eliminate the community of LGBTQ people. That makes it quantifiably and quantitatively different from anything else that's going on that the LGBTQ community is facing and that deserves our attention. It certainly deserves the outrage of the US government because the government has remained silent on this.”

One central character in the film is Maxim, who was abducted, beaten and tortured.  He was eventually let go, but the government ended up pursuing him and his whole family. 

“I like Chechnya a lot,” Maxim says in the film. “You know, the people are great. Their kindness and their readiness to help. I'm talking about ordinary people. And so when the gay persecution began, it was a huge shock for me. I couldn't understand how these kinds people could treat others so violently with such cruelty to gay people, who never did anything to them.”

In another part of the film, Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of Chechnya, is asked about the allegations of abduction and torture of gay men in the republic. 

“This is nonsense, we don’t have such people here,” Kadyrov says.

The Chechen Republic is located in an isolated area, surrounded by mountains, and it has a very insular culture. Kadyrov, the region's leader, was placed in power by Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

France spoke to The World's host Marco Werman about the dangers facing LGBTQ people in Chechnya and those who try to help them escape.

Marco Werman: What made you want to pursue this project, a film about human rights violations against LGBTQ people in Chechnya?   

David France: It's a film about a basket of things — certainly about the atrocities that are taking place there, but also about how the world really paid very little attention to it even once it was exposed in early 2017. It generated headlines around the globe, but it was not sustained coverage. Once the coverage went away, the campaign against the community continued. And that's the third part of the story that really fascinated me, which was what the Russian LGBTQ community was forced to do on its own and in the shadows in the absence of any sort of effective outcry or any sort of political pressure from the outside world and certainly no hint of any movement toward justice inside the country.

Related: Gay men in Chechnya rounded up, tortured, and killed: report

So when the big headlines went away, you stayed on the story. And as you rightly point out, it's just as much about Russia as it is about Chechnya. One important character we follow throughout your film, we know him first as Grisha and then later learned his real name is Maxim. His story in many ways seems to be kind of the heart of your documentary. Who is he?   

Well, Maxim was one of the scores of people who were rounded up in that first year and brought in because of their presumed homosexuality and beaten and tortured. Most of them dispatched in one way or another. This is early 2017 and they determined to their surprise that Maxim was not ethnic Chechen, but instead was in Chechnya working, and is from the north of Russia. They let him go. The campaign they're waging there is a blood cleansing. They're cleansing, they think, the Chechen bloodline of LGBTQ people. Because Maxim fell out of that umbrella, they let him go.

But then almost immediately, the authorities felt that they had made a mistake. In fact, what they had done was to send him off to be able to tell the story of what happened to him in a way that would reveal what they're up to. They began to pursue him. And so, he went underground. They started putting pressure on his family, threatening to burn down their house, his parents' house, his sister's house, to kill his sister's children. So the whole family went underground and decided at some point that they couldn't live like that. He, in act of indescribable bravery, decided to become the first and only person to bring a criminal case against the people who abducted him and tortured him in the Russian courts. This is a huge move. No one else has come forward in this way, knowing that if they do, they put their entire families in danger. So he is alone and has become the face of the people who survived this campaign.

In the film, Maxim talks about his first impressions of Chechnya and how his views were generally positive. He later talks about how he could not comprehend the cruelty against gay people.  Later in the film, after he and his family had to flee,  his mother also talks about how the abuse is not the country’s fault and that the blame lies with certain people. Those two perspectives, they convey seemingly contradictory ideas about what Chechnya is. How did you square them?

The thing about the Lapunov family is that they have a great understanding of humanity and they are very generous in their worldview, but they're realists. Their lives have been permanently uprooted. They are living in the shadows. They are hiding, moving from place to place through Europe as their court case proceeds, because they know that they have drawn the fire — not only of the Chechen government and the people associated with the leadership there, but also with the Russian government, which does not want attention brought to this matter and would rather it just go away quietly. I think that when Maxim's mother speaks about individual power-thirsty men, she is really speaking a truth about what's happening in our world today.

Related: Remembering Sarah Hegazi, the Egyptian LGBTQ activist arrested for unfurling the rainbow flag

What is the latest on Maxim's case?  

Maxim pursued the case through the courts in Russia and it was rejected time and time again. He appealed and appealed until he exhausted all domestic remedies and he did what is left to many aggrieved Russians, which is to move the case into the European courts. His case now rests in the European Court for Human Rights, where it is being investigated and pursued. They are waiting now for Russia to respond to the charges and the preliminary findings of the investigators, and they will not let it rest. We're expecting that they will see some sort of justice there in the European system.

The big goal for the extraction of LGBTQ people in Chechnya is asylum. Seeking asylum in Europe, the US and Canada. Canada seems to be the destination for a lot of these asylum seekers. What have you learned about asylum for LGBTQ people while making this film?  

It turns out that asylum-seeking and refugee declarations for the community are complicated, more so than many other groups of people who are seeking protection and safety elsewhere. They're not overtly protected by most governments. So it's harder for them to make certain claims. It's certainly hard for people coming out of Chechnya because there has been no documentary evidence to this point and what has been happening there is actually happening there, until this film. They are also coming from a Muslim-majority part of the country, and that means that they're hitting up against dual prejudices. And so it's been quite difficult for the activists on the ground to find partners in the foreign offices of most governments around the globe.

The US has taken nobody that has petitioned since this tragedy has been revealed, nor has the UK. We're in a time now, globally, where xenophobia is on the increase and paranoia that immigration has reached a peak. It becomes a burden that is a lasting one for the activists. They bring people in now into their shelter network, into their underground, and they can't get them out. They are stuck and it becomes an impossible situation, impossibly expensive, obviously, to keep people hidden in large numbers throughout Russia and elsewhere. One of the things I hope the film will point to is — how tough it is for the LGBTQ community to make their way out of this hostile world when we know that there are 70 countries where it is still illegal to be gay or lesbian or transgender, and eight of those countries have the death penalty for people found guilty of it. So it's really a pressing and very urgent problem.

Ramzan Kadyrov is the driving force behind all of this in Chechnya. There's a clip in your documentary where he's interviewed and he leaves no doubt he despises LGBT people. He says if they exist in Chechnya, he wants them all gone. Why does President Vladimir Putin support him?  

He and Putin do one another's favors and they’re kind of unspeakable and lowly criminal favors for the most part. Putin has found his enemies shot dead in front of the Kremlin, presumably as a favor carried out by his henchmen down in Chechnya. And Kadyrov has pacified the people of Chechnya in a way that makes them no longer a problem for the regime in Moscow. There were two wars in Chechnya in the 1990s and the 2000s and it was all because Chechnya’s previous leadership wanted to secede from the federation and Putin, for economic reasons and political reasons, wouldn't allow it and fought a tremendously bloody war. Two wars there. And Kadyrov and his father helped end those wars. Putin is repaying them by allowing them to carry out law in the region in any way that they deem necessary. And he just turns a blind eye to a vast quantity of evidence about human rights violations there. Putin just chooses to publicly state that he has seen no evidence of it, he doesn't believe it would be happening and that the two of them are still in total lockstep.

 This interview has been condensed and edited.

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