‘Welcome to Chechnya’ Filmmaker David France on Putin’s Weaponization of Homophobia and Implications for LGBTQ Community in Ukraine
As filmmaker David France has documented in his work, hatred of queer people leads to the death of queer people, a topic he explored most prominently in his 2020 film, Welcome to Chechnya, which premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. The documentary spotlights the work of activists in Russia’s Chechen Republic seeking to rescue survivors of torture from the regional government’s anti-gay purges, atrocities to which the Kremlin turned a blind eye.
Harrowing and brutal, Welcome to Chechnya, France’s third film, is all the more prescient right now. Since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine in February, the Russian government has shut down independent news outlets and arrested hundreds of war protestors, while thousands of Russians, including many LGBTQ citizens, have fled the country.
France talked with The Hollywood Reporter about the ways in which Russian President Vladimir Putin has used homophobia as a way of furthering his totalitarian regime, most chillingly with a 2013 propaganda law which bans the “promotion of nontraditional sexual relations to minors,” a piece of legislation not unlike Florida’s recently passed bill that critics call the “Don’t Say Gay” law. The Russian law effectively forbids any depiction of or reference to homosexuality at all in the country, and it has been used to imprison activists. “This is Russia’s tool for Putin’s continued dominance and has been for more than 10 years — this way that he has weaponized the culture war around queerness,” says France.
In recent years, many queer people have fled from Russia to Ukraine, seeking safety. Now, with the Russian invasion of its neighbor, queer people in Ukraine find themselves in the crosshairs. Some are fleeing, while gay men of conscription age are restricted from leaving the country.
France’s body of work also includes 2012’s Oscar-nominated How to Survive a Plague, about the early years of the AIDS epidemic in New York City, when many government officials were ignoring the crisis; 2017’s The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, about the famed trans activist and her unsolved murder; and his newest film, How to Survive a Pandemic, which chronicles the process of developing vaccines against COVID-19 (due out March 29 on HBO Max).
The filmmaker also spoke with THR about the “kill list” of queer activists that Russian forces were said to have been given as they invaded Ukraine; the global implications of Putin’s anti-queer policies; and the current wave of anti-gay and anti-transgender bills in the United States.
How are LGBTQ people and the moves to target them part of the Russia-Ukraine story?
I was in Kyiv in 2013 and meeting with the ambassador there. They had brought me to the embassy to show How to Survive a Plague at these civil society screenings throughout Ukraine. By the time I got there, they had canceled the screening because the Russian-backed president at the time and his cronies in the legislature were arguing about the West’s pro-gay imperialism in a way that it was all about joining NATO. They said, “If we join NATO, we’re gonna have to accept gay marriage.” This is why it’s important for you to be writing about this. This whole question about queerness is being used to divide the population, to justify the Russian involvement first in Eastern Ukraine and the Donbas region, and now through their so-called “strategic military action,” it is literally about defending the so-called Christian foundation of Russian culture against the West’s pro-gay stance. That is such a driver to all of this. And the fact that nobody’s talking about it out loud is a big mistake. It allows the power of that division to continue to be turned up, manipulated in ways that we see now are causing some 80 percent of Russian citizens to be in favor of this action against the liberalization in Ukraine.
Do you know much about what things were like for the LGBTQ population under [President Volodymyr] Zelensky in Ukraine?
Yeah, he’s very pro queer. I was just looking at my Facebook page, this dance number he did back when he was a performer. It’s him in high heels. Somebody has put it to the “Single Ladies” song. It’s the queerest thing you can imagine. He’s faced down with the patriarch of the Orthodox church in the country, which is very powerful. They have been stridently anti-gay there at the church. So he has been part of the liberalization. It’s not a place of great liberal freedoms, but it’s not illegal there. There is, at least in the political class, a willingness to move toward the EU’s embracing of broad rights for the queer community. But the [Russian] state department released a memo saying that as part of the front line of the invading forces, there was an elite kill squad with a kill list heading into Ukraine. And on the kill list were human rights activists, LGBTQ activists and others. So queer people are on the top of the list of the declared enemies of the Russian invading forces.
And what is the current situation for LGBTQ people in Russia?
In the months leading up to this, the crackdown against LGBTQ organizations and political groups inside Russia had become untenable to the point where most of the leaders who have been involved in the movement since 1991, the fall of the Soviet Union, have been forced to leave the country. That is remarkable, that over the last two months, there has been this great exodus of queer folks who had been so important to the political work there. They have declared their organizations unconstitutional. They have declared their fundraising arms to be foreign agents, some tool of some undeclared foreign power that is seeking to invade and transform and subvert this Russian sense of its godliness and its connection to Christianity. Last summer, in Russia, Putin amended the constitution to exclude LGBTQ rights, specifically, inside the constitution. That’s what’s made it possible for them to crack down so violently against the organizations. So many of the people and organizations that I worked with making Welcome to Chechnya, they’ve all been forced into exile now. All the human rights groups have been closed down. And the independent press over the last couple weeks, we saw — even the last independent radio station closed down. The only thing that’s operating now is one newspaper. And even then some of their top reporters have left the country.
Is it important at all to make a distinction between the horrors in Chechnya — which you documented in your movie — and what’s happening in Russia?
Well, what’s happening in Chechnya is just the extreme of this scapegoating strategy. We see the extremes playing out also in Poland and Romania and elsewhere. In Poland, one-third of the country now is living under declared gay-free zones, established by the local and municipal and regional governments. That is all part of this. It’s what now seems like the building of an iron curtain between West and East, around questions of fundamental principles. Whereas before we had a left-wing Soviet Union claiming exceptionalism, now it’s a right-wing, very conservative, church-affiliated force that is trying to divide off these former Soviet enclaves from Western influence. There’s a generational issue to all of that. We’ve seen in polling inside Russia that since Putin’s return to power, the acceptance of the queer community is dwindling. That is really the stepladder that Putin has used to maintain his power to take away rights, because he alleges that our rights are somehow infringing upon the civil liberties of everybody else. And it’s an easily exported idea. That’s what was exported to the Donbas [region of Ukraine]. That’s what was exported to Poland and elsewhere. It works. That’s, I think, the shocking thing for us, having watched this incredible social transformation over the last three decades. That it is so easily reversible.
And at the same time, it sounds like there’s a refusal to acknowledge that queerness exists.
It’s not that [Putin] has denied its existence, but [Ramzan] Kadyrov, the head of Chechnya, has said that there are no queers in Chechnya, and Putin and his spokespeople have said that they’ve got no reason to doubt Kadyrov. So we’re left in this bizarre, untenable, parallel universe.
Are you hearing anything from inside Ukraine about the community there, and their situation right now? If you are a gay man of conscription age, you have to stay in the country, correct?
Correct. I’ve heard testimony to the fact that they might be making exceptions for transgender men. But I don’t know. And so I think it’s across the board, they’re trying to enforce this no-male exodus, which kind of makes sense, obviously. But here’s what we know about what life has been like in Ukraine. They’ve had gay Pride marches, ongoing now for the last dozen years. They’ve been exercising these Western freedoms. So all of that is challenged. There is a right wing in the country that has been very critical of that. And they’ve shown up in the form of groups of thugs at the Pride marches to assault people, and people have gotten very seriously injured. I think 2016 or 2015 was the really hideous year. So in comparison to life in Russia, the community had a pocket of understanding and they were able to breathe. They were able to fashion sort of an existence in Zelensky’s Ukraine.
A lot of the people that were leaving the anti-queer stuff in Russia were hiding in Ukraine. That was a logical place to go. People spoke Russian there, you could get by on day one with your language. And there was this civil society defending queer advances in culture, society and law.
So now there’s got to be a feeling of like, well, I haven’t gotten quite far enough away.
Exactly. That is clearly one of the targets of this campaign, this military campaign, is to roll that back. So then you’ve gotta flee again. People are stuck in Ukraine, 3 million people have gotten out, but they’re mostly elderly and moms and kids. Everybody that I know who’s queer in Russia, whether or not they’re activists, has either left or is making plans to leave or is not responding anymore to texts.
Because they don’t want there to be any trace of anything on their phones?
It started out by accessing people’s hook-up apps. And then of course people dumped those. If you go on any of the hook-up apps and geo-locate yourself into the middle of Chechnya, they’re very busy networks, but they’re mostly these fake accounts of people trying to entrap you.
Is this more of a personally motivated driving force, that we know, for Putin, or is it more of a strategy that allows him to carry out this goal of reunification of the empire?
It’s a strategy. He started experimenting with anti-queer stuff in like 2010, 2011, 2012. In 2012 and 2013, there was that moment of pro-democracy demonstrations around the country, just as he was returning to power, or hoping to return to power. And he started blaming those demonstrations on the queers, started saying that this was a gay movement to disqualify and discredit the government and to subvert Russian principles. And he discovered that it worked, you know, there were so many people living in such poverty, in such tenuous connections to the economy, that they’re looking for just some explanation about what caused all of this. And he discovered that you could build a path toward centralized totalitarian ruling policies that mimic the Soviet Union by using this particular wedge issue.
When he saw that it was working, he then promulgated the law that says that you can’t speak in public in favor of LGBTQ people or lives or realities, because doing so now runs afoul of the gay propaganda law that came into effect in 2013, that says that you cannot expose children to this propaganda about gay people being ordinary or equal. That in effect means you can’t have an article in which people are quoted saying those things, because children could read those articles. You can’t have a gay demonstration because children might see the demonstration. [Gay people] can’t have children because your very presence as their queer parent breaks that law. So it just worked more and more, and that’s what was so shocking to me, maybe because I’m naive, but this idea that we could return to this 1950s mentality about queers today. That it’d be possible to return to it and have it work. That’s why we see people like [Hungary’s President Viktor] Orbán picking it up, and we see the regional governments in Poland picking it up, and [President Jair] Bolsonaro in Brazil, mouthing the same anti-gay rhetoric as a way to scare people into feeling like they needed to keep him as a bulwark against the perversion of the family and society. And then Trump.
[The U.S.] had made it so you could only say [anti-gay] things in private; it was not really possible to say them in public, in the mid- to late ’80s and forward. You would be ridiculed in the press. You would be on the fringes of political discourse, and that’s no longer the fringes. And we see it. We’ve got, what is it, 14 states now that are criminalizing transgender kids in schools. It’s a wildly effective tool for the right wing again.
And then there is the “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida.
Right. Which is now being taken up by other states. It’s a terrible time. It’s just a terrible time. It’s enough to cause you to despair. It works, it continues to work. What we have [in the U.S.] at least is a semblance of a working press where we can add different opinions to those opinions.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.