David France is quickly becoming the go-to filmmaker for excellent LGBTQ activist documentaries. France started his directing career with the Oscar-nominated How to Survive a Plague, detailing the AIDS crisis and the story of the activist coalitions ACT UP and TAG in the framework of a thriller. His Netflix documentary The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson brought an important story about one of the LGBTQ movement’s frequently overlooked heroes back into the spotlight.
France’s latest, Welcome to Chechnya (premiering on HBO and HBO streaming platforms on June 30), is yet another powerful film about the struggle for LGBTQ civil rights. Coming in on the very last day of Pride month, it’s both a hopeful story of courage and community in impossible circumstances, and a stark reminder of how far the world still needs to go.
Welcome to Chechnya follows the Russian LGBTQ Network, an activist group working to combat the state-sanctioned persecution of Chechnya’s LGBTQ community. Since 2016, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has encouraged the detainment, torture, and execution of the republic’s LGBTQ population. The organization France follows functions as its own underground railroad; the network’s leader, David Isteev, and his colleagues take calls from endangered Chechens, put them in safe houses and smuggle them out of the country. France maintains his subjects’ anonymity by using their network-given pseudonyms, as well as face-altering technology.
Isteev also wants the Russian government to open an investigation into Kadyrov’s “gay purge.” In order to do that, however, he needs a survivor to come forward–something that would mean a lifetime of hiding for the person brave enough to speak up. Hope comes in the form of Welcome to Chechnya’s other main character, Maxim Lapunov (initially introduced as “Grisha”), a gay Russian man who was detained and tortured while working in Chechnya. France switches focus between the Russian LGBTQ Network’s efforts and the story of Maxim, his family, and his husband as they weather the fallout of Maxim’s decision to go public.
Much like How to Survive a Plague, Welcome to Chechnya often feels like a pulse-pounding thriller. Unlike France’s previous films, however, this one documents an ongoing situation, with an outcome we don’t yet know. This makes Welcome to Chechnya a harrowing watch. It’s worth knowing that there are numerous triggers, including torture and self-harm. It’s all necessary to communicate the importance of the situation France is documenting, but it can be difficult to sit through.
Regardless, Welcome to Chechnya is a powerful piece of filmmaking journalism. As heavy as France’s film is (and it is very heavy), showing the suffering of others isn’t his only goal. More important to Welcome to Chechnya is the depiction of its activist heroes, people so dedicated to helping others that it’s almost hard to believe they’re real. Lapunov, Isteev, and the rest of the film’s subjects are so brave and selfless that they make you want to drop everything and take action. That’s ultimately the point of the film–not just to show the darkness in the world, but to show how far people are willing to go to bring in the light.
“Welcome to Chechnya“ premieres on HBO and its associated apps on June 30.