In an era when documentaries often seem geared more toward a slick and buzzy “docu-tainment” style than to the unfiltered presentation of real-world facts and experiences, “Welcome to Chechnya” blasts you in the face like a gust of icy wind.
A harrowing look at the “underground railroad” that sprung up within Russia to help the victims of the notorious “gay genocide” being perpetrated under Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, it’s a film that makes you want to look away but doesn’t let you do it. It conveys the unthinkable trauma of living in a constant state of terror while making a desperate, clandestine run for your very life; more than that, it permits us to put a human face – albeit a digitally altered one – on the crisis.
Part of the film’s impact undoubtedly stems from its subject matter, but it’s at least equally due to the artistry of its director, David France. It’s not the first time he’s been behind a heavyweight LGBTQ documentary. The longtime journalist made his directing debut with “How to Survive a Plague” in 2012, documenting the early years of the AIDS epidemic with an activist’s passion in a film that won him a host of awards and nominations for several more, including an Oscar.
Now, “Chechnya,” which premiered at last year’s Sundance Festival and was released by HBO last summer, has made the shortlist for this year’s Academy Awards, raising the possibility for a second chance at taking home the coveted statue. Yet Oscar gold was not what France had on his mind when he had a conversation with the Blade about the film earlier this week. Rather, he wanted to discuss the people in the film.
France, like everyone else, had been appalled by the tales coming out of Chechnya in 2017. “We all read the stories,” he tells us now, “but it wasn’t until I read Masha Gessen’s New Yorker piece about the work that ordinary Russians were having to take upon themselves that I became really fascinated.”
He is referring to the network of LGBTQ activists that mobilized in the absence of outside help to extract refugees in daring escapes, hide them in safe houses across Russia, and work with groups around the world to get them out of the country. In “Welcome to Chechnya,” he follows a handful of these accidental heroes, as well as several of the survivors they protect, as they orchestrate and enact spycraft that would be right at home in an episode of “The Americans.” In the process, he shines a light on more than just the atrocities being committed against queer people in Chechnya. He also illuminates a level of courage that most of us have never had to muster.
“That’s what drew me in,” France says. “The fact that ordinary citizens took it upon themselves to intervene, to try and save lives, while the rest of the world was doing so little about it.”
“It’s not like they had been already doing this work,” he explains. “Olga [Baranova, one of the activists who appears in the film] was running a community center that had an annual arts fair – that’s the extent of her training for the kind of cape-wearing heroics that you see her carrying out.”
With his cameraman and producer Askold Kurov, France spent months in the underground, chronicling the efforts of the activists and the stories of the survivors under their care, and getting plenty of first-hand experience with the kind of fear under which they had willingly chosen to live, day after day. After all, getting out of Chechnya wasn’t enough to make anyone safe; Chechen authorities were willing to stop at nothing to make sure nobody had a chance to expose what was going on, up to and including tracking down, recapturing, and maybe even killing any potential witnesses – and anyone who stood in the way was putting themselves in peril, too.
“I remember going on one of the extractions,” he relates. “We were getting ready to make a run with a couple whose location had been found out. We had only a few hours to get them to the airport, and then we got word of a rumor that a group of assassins had been dispatched to prevent them from leaving the country. We had one bodyguard, with one sidearm, with us.
“That kind of unbelievable peril is what hung over, and what still hangs over, every aspect of the work these ordinary Russian activists have taken on for themselves.”
It’s also what made it a challenge to film the refugees, for whom anonymity was a matter of life or death.
“I wanted to show what they looked like,” he tells us. “The pain that they wore on their faces, the hope – and certainly the fear. And most of them wanted the world to know what had happened to them, to expose these crimes – but they also understood what it would mean for them and their families if they stood up publicly and revealed their truths. They were terrified, and here I was asking them to let me film them anyway and then figure out how to solve this problem later.”
There is still a touch of awe in his voice as he says, “Remarkably, a couple of dozen people agreed to let me do that.”
He continues, “There were people, of course, who couldn’t take that leap with me. There was one person who was nervous even about me filming other people in the shelter. These were people who had just escaped the most horrific abuse and torture, and violation from their own families. They were hiding from their brothers and their uncles, from their own fathers. That dislocation of familial love was so traumatic to everybody there that some of them were just on a very sharp edge – unable to reckon with the past, unable to find security in the present or see hope in the future. You see that in the film with one of them, who even attempts suicide. For those people, it was a difficult arrangement to have me shooting even on the other side of the shelter house. I understood that and I tried to be very respectful.”
The challenge of maintaining privacy would eventually be surmounted by new, state-of-the-art identity protection software, a high-tech touch that France – savvy storyteller that he is – was able to parlay into one of the film’s most dramatic and unexpected moments. A considerable amount of screen time in “Welcome to Chechnya” is devoted to an anonymous refugee who has escaped from his tormentors into the network, where he is reunited with his family and his boyfriend of 10 years; a turning point comes when, despite being poised for removal to another country, he chooses to go public with his story and make an official complaint to the Russian government. As he makes that decision, the false features realistically rendered over his real ones melt away before our eyes, revealing his unaltered face – and with it, his true identity. It’s a powerful effect, and it’s our official introduction to Maxim Lapunov, whose subsequent appearance before a Russian court to tell his story is captured in the movie. Unsurprisingly, his claims are dismissed, and the need to get him and his loved ones out of the country becomes even more imperative.
In talking about Lapunov, the awe returns to France’s voice. “Maxim’s moral courage is unmatched. It was really clear that his life was going to be fucked up for the foreseeable future, no matter what he did. The courage that he showed was the courage to throw his body in the way to make sure that other people don’t get treated the way that he was treated – to save people’s lives. He could have gone anywhere in the world, and just nursed his post-traumatic memories in safety, but instead he went back into the fire. That was remarkable. I watched him make those decisions, I watched him take on that risk, I watched him bring his family along on that journey and win their allegiance in these choices – these are human dramas like you see in Hollywood films that actually are taking place in the queer battle against the crimes in Russia.”
He segues into a similar expression of respect for David Isteev, another activist prominently featured in “Chechnya.”
“When you look at his face, you just get this incredible sense of high alert and of moral purpose. It makes me think of the stories we have heard from the Holocaust, of citizens who would otherwise have been untouched who reach into some deep reserve to do something. That’s him. And being in the presence of that was one of the most remarkable experiences of my life.”
If it sounds like he has bonded with his subjects, it’s because he has. Being embedded in the shelter network for such an extended period of time, he and Kurov became part of the underground themselves. “We were no longer visitors from outside,” he says. “We were experiencing what they were. I spent nights full of terror inside those safe houses, when rumors were flying about people who might have been seen, locations that might have been revealed, dangers that might have been heightened – I felt that with them. We huddled together, and, in a way, I became part of their journey.
“I do feel personally attached to those people having been through that with them. It’s something like the bond of warfare that you read about. I would do anything for David. I would do anything for Maxim and his family.”
The real emotion apparent in these professions of kinship is surely one of the reasons why the documentarian is still, more than six months after his film’s debut, eager to talk about it. The people with whom he developed these strong bonds are still very much at risk.
The biggest horrors in “Welcome to Chechnya” are only glimpsed briefly in dark and blurry videos intercepted from the web by the network, or described in the stories of torment, humiliation and brutality told by the survivors, but they cast a dark enough shadow over the imagination to make us want to believe they are safely in the past. Unfortunately, as France is quick to remind us, LGBTQ persecution in Chechnya is still very much “an ongoing humanitarian crisis.” Just last week, two refugees were kidnapped from the network by Russian authorities and returned to Chechnya, an incident that brought the situation there back into the headlines.
“These were two very young men, one of them 20, and the other 17 – not even a man,” relates France. “They had been abducted last summer in Chechnya and tortured, they barely got out alive. They were rescued and extracted by the network and were being held in a safe house while the work was being done with foreign partners to try and get them out. Now they are back in detention in Chechnya. It’s a very volatile situation.”
Yet it’s also a situation in which, perhaps ironically, he sees a hope that has been scarce for the past four years.
“The United States, in this new administration, has expressed great concern for those two kids and demanded information on their safety,” he points out. “The European Court for Human Rights has demanded access to them, and safe passage for them to get back to the safe house where they were being held.”
For him, it’s a call to action. “The Russian LGBT network is on the ground, still fighting this fight,” he says. “We can urgently throw our voices behind their efforts with regard to these two youngsters – we could save their lives. There are petitions, but that’s not enough. We know from watching these activists’ work that it’s essential, it’s extensive, and as you can imagine, it’s costly. They cannot raise money within Russia, so they’ve asked people who see the film to help them by donating. There’s a donation page on the movie site. We’ve just watched almost $200,000 move through there, in the six months since the film came out, and that money goes to the Moscow Community Center, Olga’s group that runs the shelter system, to the Russian LGBT Network that does the extractions and runs the global hotline for the crisis. And it also goes to Maxim and his legal case, which is still percolating through, and showing great progress in, the European courts.
“So, I think there’s hope, but we have to act urgently. I think what’s shocked us all, in the last few years, is how easily we can lose ground. All this progress that we’ve made over the last 30 or 40 years can be reversed in a heartbeat, and that’s what’s happened in Russia, and Russia has led the way in this dramatic reversal of queer progress, all across Europe. It’s going to take a lot of people coming together internationally to stop that, but it is possible.”
He’s a realist in his expectations, though. “We can’t hope for regime change in Chechnya or in Russia. Those are not practical, immediate goals. But we can force Ramzan Kadyrov in Chechnya to stop this. He is a puppet of Putin’s. If we make it politically untenable for Putin not to intervene there, then he will lift up the telephone and say to Kadyrov, ‘Stop it.’ That’s all that it takes. It’s that simple. We haven’t gotten there because we haven’t had the kind of global leadership that can bring collective pressure on Putin to do that. I think we’re in a place where we can now.
“Even just watching the film is an important step. The Russian government has said repeatedly that this is not happening, that there’s no evidence, even – ridiculously – that there are no queer Chechens. They say that no one has come forward, but Maxim did that, officially, and they rejected his claims. The people protected by the digital technology we deployed in the film have also spelled out their stories, so they are witnesses. And we’re all witnesses, now.”
The passion creeps back into France’s voice as he recalls, “That was my promise to the people in the network, when I said I wanted to film with them, that I was going to help make this so that everybody in the world knows what’s happening.
“Anybody who sees the film becomes a witness, and it becomes an act of resistance just to talk about what you see in it.”
Rodriquez scores historic win at otherwise irrelevant Golden Globes
Award represents a major milestone for trans visibility
HOLLYWOOD – Despite its continuing status as something of a pariah organization in Hollywood, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has managed to cling to relevance in the wake of last night’s behind-closed-doors presentation of its 79th Annual Golden Globe Awards by sole virtue of having bestowed the prize for “Best Leading Actress in a Television Series – Drama” on Michaela Jaé Rodriguez for her work in the final season of “Pose” – making her the first transgender performer to win a Golden Globe.
The ceremony took place as a private, no-press-or-audience event in which winners were revealed via a series of tweets from the Golden Globes Twitter account. No celebrities were present (not even the nominees or winners), although actress Jamie Lee Curtis participated by appearing in a video in which she pronounced her continuing loyalty to the HFPA – without mention of the longstanding issues around diversity and ethical practices, revealed early in 2021 by a bombshell Los Angeles Times report, that have led to an nearly industry-wide boycott of the organization and its awards as well as the cancellation of the annual Golden Globes broadcast by NBC for the foreseeable future.
While the Golden Globes may have lost their luster for the time being, the award for Rodriquez represents a major milestone for trans visibility and inclusion in the traditionally transphobic entertainment industry, and for her part, the actress responded to news of her win with characteristic grace and good will.
Posting on her Instagram account, the 31-year old actress said:
“OMG OMGGG!!!! @goldenglobes Wow! You talking about sickening birthday present! Thank you!
“This is the door that is going to Open the door for many more young talented individuals. They will see that it is more than possible. They will see that a young Black Latina girl from Newark New Jersey who had a dream, to change the minds others would WITH LOVE. LOVE WINS.
“To my young LGBTQAI babies WE ARE HERE the door is now open now reach the stars!!!!!”
As You Are Bar and the importance of queer gathering spaces
New bar/restaurant poised to open in 2022
More than just a watering hole: As You Are Bar is set to be the city’s newest queer gathering place where patrons can spill tea over late-morning cappuccinos as easily as they can over late-night vodka-sodas.
Co-owners and founders Jo McDaniel and Rachel Pike built on their extensive experience in the hospitality industry – including stints at several gay bars – to sign a lease for their new concept in Barracks Row, replacing what was previously District Soul Food and Banana Café. In a prime corner spot, they are seeking to bring together the disparate colors of the LGBTQ rainbow – but first must navigate the approval process (more on that later).
The duo decided on this Southeast neighborhood locale to increase accessibility for “the marginalized parts of our community,” they say, “bringing out the intersectionality inherent in the queer space.”
Northwest D.C., they explain, not only already has many gay bar options, but is also more difficult to get to for those who don’t live within walking distance. The Barracks Row location is right by a Metro stop, “reducing pay walls.” Plus, there, “we are able to find a neighborhood to bring in a queer presence that doesn’t exist today.”
McDaniel points out that the area has a deep queer bar history. Western bar Remington’s was once located in the area, and it’s a mere block from the former Phase 1, the longest-running lesbian bar, which was open from 1971-2015.
McDaniel and Pike hope that As You Are Bar will be an inclusive space that “welcomes anyone of any walk of life that will support, love, and celebrate the mission of queer culture. We want people of all ages, gender, sexual identity, as well as drinkers and non-drinkers, to have space.”
McDaniel (she/her) began her career at Apex in 2005 and was most recently the opening manager of ALOHO. Pike (she/they) was behind the bar and worked as security at ALOHO, where the two met.
Since leaving ALOHO earlier this year, they have pursued the As You Are Bar project, first by hosting virtual events during the pandemic, and now in this brick-and-mortar space. They expressed concern that receiving the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA) liquor license approval and the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission, or ANC, approval will be a long and expensive process.
They have already received notice that some neighbors intend to protest As You Are Bar’s application for the “tavern” liquor license that ABRA grants to serve alcohol and allow for live entertainment (e.g. drag shows). They applied for the license on Nov. 12, and have no anticipated opening date, estimating at least six months. If ABRA and the city’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board give final approval, the local ANC 6B and nearby residents can no longer protest the license until the license comes up for renewal.
Until approval is given, they continue physical buildout (including soundproofing) and planning their offerings. If the license is approved, ABRA and the ABC Board can take action against As You Are Bar, like any bar, at any time if they violate the terms of the license or create a neighborhood disturbance that violates city laws such as the local noise ordinance. In the kitchen, the duo snagged Chef Nina Love to develop the menu. Love will oversee café-style fare; look out for breakfast sandwiches making an appearance all the way until close. They will also have baked goods during the day.
McDaniel and Pike themselves will craft the bar menu. Importantly, they note, the coffee bar will also serve until close. There will be a full bar as well as a list of zero-proof cocktails. As with their sourcing, they hope to work with queer-, minority-, and women-owned businesses for everything not made in-house.
Flexible conceptually, they seek to grow with their customer base, allowing patrons to create the culture that they seek.
Their goal is to move the queer space away from a focus on alcohol consumption. From book clubs, to letter-writing, to shared workspaces, to dance parties, they seek an all-day, morning-to-night rhythm of youth, families, and adults to find a niche. “We want to shift the narrative of a furtive, secretive, dark gay space and hold it up to the light,” they say. “It’s a little like The Planet from the original L Word show,” they joke.
Pike notes that they plan on working closely with SMYAL, for example, to promote programming for youth. Weekend potential activities include lunch-and-learn sessions on Saturdays and festive Sunday brunches.
The café space, to be located on the first floor, will have coffeehouse-style sofas as well as workstations. A slim patio on 8th Street will hold about six tables.
Even as other queer bars have closed, they reinforce that the need is still present. “Yes, we can visit a café or bar, but we always need to have a place where we are 100 percent certain that we are safe, and that our security is paramount. Even as queer acceptance continues to grow, a dedicated queer space will always be necessary,” they say.
To get there, they continue to rally support of friends, neighbors, and leaders in ANC6B district; the ANC6B officials butted heads with District Soul Food, the previous restaurant in the space, over late-night noise and other complaints. McDaniel and Pike hope that once nearby residents and businesses understand the important contribution that As You Are Bar can make to the neighborhood, they will extend their support and allow the bar to open.
Need a list-minute gift idea?
Books, non-profit donations make thoughtful choices
You knew this was coming.
You knew that you were going to have to finish your holiday shopping soon but it snuck up on you, didn’t it? And even if you’re close to being done, there are always those three or five people who are impossible to buy for, right? Remember this, though: books are easy to wrap and easy to give, and they last a while, too. So why not head to the bookstore with your Christmas List and look for these gifts.
And if you still have people to shop for, why not make a donation to a local non-profit in their name? A list of D.C.-area suggestions follows.
If there’s about to be a new addition to your family, wrapping up “Queer Stepfamilies: The path to Social and Legal Recognition” by Katie L. Acosta would be a good thing. In this book, the author followed forty LGBTQ families to understand the joys, pitfalls, and legalities of forming a new union together. It can’t replace a lawyer, but it’s a good overview.
For the parent who wants to ensure that their child grows up with a lack of bias, “Raising LGBTQ Allies” by Chris Tompkins is a great book to give. It’s filled with methods to stop bullying in its tracks, to be proactive in having That Conversation, and how to be sure that the next generation you’re responsible for becomes responsible in turn. Wrap it up with “The Healing Otherness Handbook” by Stacee L. Reicherzer, Ph.D., a book that helps readers to deal with bullying by finding confidence and empowerment.
If there’s someone on your gift list who’s determined to get “fit” in the coming year, then give “The Secret to Superhuman Strength” by Alison Bechdel this holiday. Told in graphic-novel format (comics, basically), it’s the story of searching for self-improvement and finding it in a surprising place.
So why not give a little nostalgia this year by wrapping up “A Night at the Sweet Gum Head” by Martin Padgett? It’s the tale of disco, drag, and drugs in the 1970s (of course!) in Atlanta, with appearances by activists, politics, and people who were there at that fabulous time. Wrap it up with “After Francesco” by Brian Malloy, a novel set a little later – in the mid-1980s in New York City and Minneapolis at the beginning of the AIDS crisis.
The LGBTQ activist on your gift list will want to read “The Case for Gay Reparations” by Omar G. Encarnacion. It’s a book about acknowledgment, obligation on the part of cis citizens, and fixing the pain that homophobia and violence has caused. Wrap it up with “Trans Medicine: The Emergence and Practice of Treating Gender” by Stef M. Shuster, a look at trans history that may also make your giftee growl.
Young readers who have recently transitioned will enjoy reading “Both Sides Now” by Peyton Thomas. It’s a novel about a high school boy with gigantic dreams and the means to accomplish them all. Can he overcome the barriers that life gives him? It’s debatable… Pair it with “Can’t Take That Away” by Steven Salvatore, a book about two nonbinary students and the troubles they face as they fall in love.
The thriller fan on your list will be overjoyed to unwrap “Yes, Daddy” by Jonathan Parks-Ramage. It’s the story of a young man with dying dreams of fame and fortune, who schemes to meet an older, more accomplished man with the hopes of sparking his failing career. But the older man isn’t who the younger thinks he is, and that’s not good. Wrap it up with “Lies with Man” by Michael Nava, a book about a lawyer who agrees to be counsel for a group of activists. Good so far, right? Until one of them is accused of being involved in a deadly bombing.
For the fan of Southern fiction, you can’t go wrong when you wrap up “The Tender Grave” by Sheri Reynolds. It’s the tale of two sisters, one homophobic, the other lesbian, and how they learn to forgive and re-connect.
Like nonprofit organizations throughout the country, D.C.-area LGBTQ supportive nonprofit groups have told the Blade they continue to rebuild amid the coronavirus pandemic, which disrupted their fundraising efforts while increasing expenses, at least in part by prompting more people to come to them for help.
This holiday season, if you’re looking for a thoughtful gift, consider making a donation to one of our local LGBTQ non-profit organizations in someone else’s name. This list is by no means exhaustive, but a good place to start your research.
Contributions to the LGBTQ supportive nonprofit organizations can be made via the websites of these local organizations:
• Blade Foundation, which funds local scholarships and fellowships for queer student journalists, bladefoundation.org
• DC Center, our local community center that operates a wide range of programming, thedccenter.org/donate
• Food & Friends, which delivers meals to homebound patients, foodandfriends.org
• HIPS, which advances the health rights and dignity of those impacted by sex work and drugs, hips.org
• SMYAL, which advocates for queer youth, smyal.org
• Wanda Alston Foundation, which offers shelter and support for LGBTQ youth, wandaalstonfoundation.org
• Whitman-Walker Health, the city’s longtime LGBTQ-inclusive health care provider, whitmanwalkerimpact.org
• Casa Ruby, which provides shelter and services to youth in need, casaruby.org
• Us Helping Us, which helps improve the health of communities of color and works to reduce the impact of HIV/AIDS on the Black community, ushelpingus.org/donate
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