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Film and TV

Gay survivor of homophobic purges in Chechnya receives standing ovation at Sundance Film Festival

Emma Powys Maurice January 30, 2020

Maxim Lapunov (centre) with Olga Baranova and David Isteev at the "Welcome To Chechnya" Premiere at Prospector Square Theatre on January 26, 2020 in Park City, Utah. (Jim Bennett/Getty)

A gay man who survived torture in Chechnya received a standing ovation at the Sundance Film Festival, where his story was told in a harrowing new documentary.

Maxim Lapunov was a victim of Chechnya’s ‘gay purge‘ which has seen LGBT+ people imprisoned, beaten, tortured and killed in gay concentration camps.

Local authorities deny the crackdown ever happened – “We don’t have any gays,” said Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov – despite countless refugee reports detailing the violent abuses they have suffered.

Lapunov faced 12 days of detainment and police beatings, and could barely crawl when he was finally released. Almost three years later, he smiled as he took to the stage to give a Q&A after the world premiere of Welcome to Chechnya at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

The “devastatingly brave” documentary shadows a group of activists risking their lives to smuggle at-risk LGBT+ Chechens out of the region.

Director David France employed guerrilla filmmaking tactics, intercutting the terrifying transport missions with secret footage recorded on mobile phones and CCTV cameras obtained by the activists.

Lapunov is one of the few LGBT+ Chechens to speak publicly about his ordeal as the majority of refugees still fear they could be hunted down even as they claim asylum abroad.

In spite of this, France was able to obtain unprecedented access to survivors, using aliases and cutting-edge technology to digitally disguise their identities.

Rather than blurring their features, he opted to use advanced facial replacement techniques so that the viewer could clearly see real faces displaying real emotions – the first time this technique has ever been used in a film.

Early reviews of the documentary have described it as “hard-hitting”, “emotionally charged”, and a “vital and urgent portrait of an unprecedented humanitarian crisis”.

France’s film closes with a pointed message: of the 151 survivors rescued by the Russian LGBT Network and granted refugee status in other countries, the Trump administration has accepted a grand total of zero.

Welcome to Chechnya premieres on HBO in June this year.

More: Chechnya, gay purge, Russia, sundance film festival, Welcome to Chechnya

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