A version of this story about “Welcome to Chechnya” first appeared in the Documentaries issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.
The third feature from Oscar nominee David France (“How to Survive a Plague”) is a harrowing film that not only examines the ramifications of the dangers faced by the LGBT community in Chechnya but also follows a handful of refugees as they risk their lives to escape to Europe. TheWrap’s Alonso Duralde spoke to France about the documentary.
After premiering at Sundance, I’m sure you had a full year of festivals and symposia planned, before 2020 became 2020.
DAVID FRANCE: I think we have been really extremely lucky in 2020, because we got to start at Sundance, and we were able to go to Berlin and from there to True/False and Thessaloniki. We really stretched out a much more direct connection with audiences than so many other filmmakers did this year. But you’re right — suddenly we were all sent home, and that was very disorienting.
The subjects of your film, who were in the process of escaping the brutally homophobic regime in Chechnya, were in constant danger during filming. Were you as well, or did having a U.S. passport provide you with sufficient cover?
I did comfort myself behind the little blue jacket of my passport, but all the research that I did and all the advice that I got suggested that that was not going to protect me from physical harm. I think we were prepared for me to be roughed up, at worst, and then hustled out of the country. And luckily, that didn’t happen. But each one of the extractions that we filmed carried with it the hot breath of pursuit and hatred and retaliation and venom that made you feel like 30 assassins were around the corner, and that was terrifying.
I did get detained leaving Chechnya, and that was probably the scariest of these fearful turns. They pulled me out of the car for questioning. But we had a security team in London that would rehearse us on each one of our journeys. And on this one, I had a narrative, I had a script, I had a story, I knew what to do in case we were pulled over like this. The story was so strong that they let us go in under 15 minutes.
I was frightened for the refugees but also for you and your crew. In what kind of headspace did making this film place you?
Finishing the production and postproduction just in time to take it to festivals, we were at a really high state of alert, working this operation at the same kind of vigilance that we had been for many years. And then when suddenly we were home, we found ourselves kind of depleted, but also for the first time able to really address the emotional burdens of that kind of spycraft. It really, really did take a lot out of us. And then to add to that, that terror of those first few months of COVID. And the entire crew–we were still meeting regularly over Zoom–realized that we had brought some wounds with us into this COVID moment, and we decided that we needed to work with each other about it. We brought in a therapist and started having weekly therapy sessions as a group.