Three years. That’s how long LGBTQ individuals have faced the Chechen government’s crackdown on queer rights. There have been hundreds of reports of authorities rounding up gay and bisexual men for forced electric shock therapy, illegal detainings and extrajudicial killings. The conservative government has ignored pleas to end the violence despite the urging of other nations and human rights organizations.
Thousands of miles away, the True/False Film Fest is using documentary to make a difference.
Since 2007, True/False has chosen one film to support each year with the True Life Fund, which raises money and awareness for subjects and causes highlighted in the film. This year’s True Life Fund film is Welcome to Chechnya, a documentary about a group of everyday Chechen citizens who become LGBTQ activists in the face of systematic oppression.
The director, David France, follows activists as they remove LGBTQ individuals from the government’s grasp. France shows viewers the many ways these organizers assist at-risk citizens such as providing them with money, negotiating for humanitarian parole visas and helping them escape the region through a network of safe houses.
All donations will be given to Welcome to Chechnya’s primary subject, Maxim Lapunov. He fled Chechnya after being identified as gay by Chechen security forces who abducted him with hundreds of others and tortured him for 12 days. Because Lapunov is still in hiding from his government and cannot get a job, all donations will help him and his family start a life in their new country and help fund his court case through the European Court of Human Rights.
Welcome to Chechnya was chosen as this year’s True Life Fund film because of the trust France developed with his sources, says Chris Boeckmann, director of film programming for True/False. “All subject-filmmaker relationships are rooted in trust, but with the True Life Fund, we particularly tend to draw attention to ones where the subject was especially giving of themselves,” Boeckmann says. “And in this instance, given that the subject was putting his life on the line by participating in the movie, it was a pretty natural selection for us.”
France says he hopes audience members take away the power of love and selflessness humans can exhibit. “I think it shows what human beings are capable of, and that is reaching much deeper into our reservoirs of courage than we might think possible,” France says.
True/False is France’s favorite film festival, so he is especially thrilled to receive the True Life Fund honor. France says he is excited about the opportunity to celebrate the activists in his film. “It is such a unique experience to be in the audience at True/False where you’re surrounded by some of the most generous and serious audience members that you could ever imagine,” France says. “The kind of response the film gets and the filmmaker gets from the Columbia, Missouri, audience is just really remarkable. I don’t even know how to describe it. It just lifts you up in a way that no other festival does.”
Prior to this film, France received critical acclaim for his documentaries How to Survive a Plague, which screened at True/False in 2012, and The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, which was first made available on Netflix in 2017. Both films cover issues faced by LGBTQ community.
Outside of filmmaking, France is also an award-winning author and investigative journalist. He has published three books including How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS. This history, based on his documentary of the same title, was one of The New York Times’ “Notable Books of 2016.” His articles have been published in outlets such as New York Magazine and inspired movies such as Showtime’s Soldier’s Girl.
Welcome to Chechnya will play on Friday at Jesse Auditorium at 2:30 p.m., Saturday at the Missouri Theatre at 12:15 p.m. and Sunday at Jesse Auditorium at 12:45 p.m. To donate, you can text any amount to 573-818-2151, submit a donation through True/False’s website or donate at the film’s screening. ￼