The connective thread running through the journalist and documentarian David France’s work may be queer activism, and yet he doesn’t see himself as an activist. “I didn’t have what it took to be a leader through difficult times, to find answers and bring people along with me,” he told me earlier this month during a call from his apartment in New York’s East Village. “That was not my skill set.”
His strength, it turned out, was as an observer, someone who functioned as a megaphone for those on the front line. France chronicled ACT UP and other groups that demanded more expansive medical research during the escalating AIDS crisis of the ’80s and ’90s, first for alternative queer publications and later for mainstream ones including Newsweek and New York magazine, before moving into filmmaking in 2012 with “How to Survive a Plague,” his account, told using archival footage, of the protest-led battle against H.I.V. “I’ve always been interested in studying the people who are able to step up and launch transformative activism from the outside,” he says.
His latest film, “Welcome to Chechnya,” premiering June 30 on HBO, builds on this theme. It follows an underground group of activists who risk their lives to provide sanctuary and safe passage for L.G.B.T.Q. citizens of the Russian republic, where gay people are routinely tortured and killed as part of a campaign to supposedly cleanse the nation’s bloodline — violence that the government has largely shrugged off. It’s the conclusion to what France considers his trilogy, starting with “How to Survive a Plague,” which was nominated for the Academy Award for best documentary, and his 2017 film “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson,” about the mysterious passing of the prominent black trans activist.
“Welcome to Chechnya” uses a version of deepfake technology to disguise the faces and voices of France’s subjects in order to preserve both their anonymity and humanity — a technique he developed after workshopping various ideas (including a Snapchat-like filter) and asking multiple Hollywood visual-effects experts for advice. The digital process, a first of its kind, allows us to empathise with the protagonists — all of whom are running away from the stability of family and home toward safety and the unknown — while keeping their identities shrouded. “There’s a very specific ask of the audience,” France says. “Witness this. Don’t let Putin and [the Chechnyan leader Ramzan] Kadyrov get away with this. There are still 70 countries around the world where it’s illegal to be gay, and eight where being so is punishable by death.” (In the film’s chilling final moments, France notes that the Trump administration has refused these L.G.B.T.Q. Chechnyan refugees entry to America.)
France, who is currently at work on a film about the novel coronavirus, shared with T his five essential documentaries, all of which deal with humanity in its most harrowing and transcendent extremes.
“The Syrian filmmaker Feras Fayyad is one of the most soulful documentary filmmakers working today,” says France about the director of this movie, which profiles a female doctor, Amani Ballour, working in dire conditions throughout the Syrian civil war in a makeshift medical facility that gives the film its name. “It’s shot inside an underground hospital targeted by Russian airstrikes, and Fayyad finds generosity, love and beauty where it is least expected,” he says.
“Emad Burnat is a West Bank farmer who bought a camera to capture his growing family, but his gaze turned outward when Israelis destroyed his olive trees to make room for a barrier wall,” France says. The resulting film documents the ensuing protests, reflecting upon how the personal and political collide and giving a human face to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Five times his cameras were shot or smashed, but the documentary evidence nonetheless survived.”
“This film was shot inside Folsom Prison, but that’s not its point,” says France. “It’s about the very hard work we all need to undertake if we hope to reconcile with our past, and with the difficult truths of the world we inherited.” In following the San Francisco-based nonprofit group Inside Circle, which provides therapy-like sessions to inmates — the titular “work” — this searing study, directed by Jairus McLeary, shows how the prison system can look beyond punishment toward the true roots of criminal activity. “It’s about how to find a way, together, to create a better future,” France adds.
As voters’ rights are set to become even more of a flashpoint during this year’s elections, this documentary, directed by Marilyn Mulford and Connie Field, about the 1964 push to sign up black voters in Mississippi — during what was known as Freedom Summer — feels newly relevant. “We should all go back and watch this Oscar-nominated film about the brutal voter registration campaign in Mississippi and the dogged activists who weathered that war,” France says. “These are the shoulders we stand on as we take on the unfinished work of racial justice in America.”
“There is no more beautiful film about the need for finding harmony with the natural world,” France says of this 2019 Academy Award contender, which doubles as a fable of sorts. Directed by Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov, it tells the story of a Macedonian beekeeper, Hatidze Muratova, focusing on the ways her routine — and nature’s delicate balance — is upended when new neighbours descend. “Stunningly shot in isolated North Macedonia,” says France, “it chronicles one woman who lives a life fit for a long-ago era when the disaster of the modern world arrives.”
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