Alumni-Produced 'Welcome to Chechnya' Premieres at Sundance, Berlinale
Oscar-nominated filmmaker David France's "Welcome to Chechnya," a poignant documentary that tells the stories of LGBTQ people persecuted in Chechnya, has been receiving global recognition. After premiering at Sundance, where it won the special award for editing, the HBO original film had its international premiere at Berlinale and will screen at the True/False Festival in Columbia, Missouri, as well as film festivals in The Netherlands, Thessaloniki, Prague, Copenhagen and Miami.
Among the star crew of the film are two AUBG alumni, Igor Myakotin ('15) and Tomas Naglis ('16), both originally from Russia and now living in the U.S. Myakotin, who majored in Journalism and Mass Communication at AUBG and received a graduate certificate in Documentary Production from The New School, is a co-producer, assistant editor and an additional camera on the film. Political Science and International Relations graduate Naglis is the documentary's leading translator and office manager.
Dubbed "devastatingly brave," "one of the most searing and vital documentaries of the year," and "harrowing but heart-filling," "Welcome to Chechnya" follows the anti-gay purges in the Southern Russian republic through the personal stories of people trying to escape to safety and the activists trying to help them.
Learning about the situation in Chechnya "was definitely heartbreaking," Myakotin said. "It was a discovery to come across such atrocities being done in your country. I think for both [Tomas and I] it was angering to find out that the country that we come from does not have an adequate response to people being persecuted, people being tortured. Since we both live far away from Russia, we also thought that this is one way that we can contribute and that maybe some change will follow."
Both alumni's passion for documentary filmmaking started back at AUBG where they met Melody Gilbert, award-winning documentary filmmaker and then professor in Journalism and Mass Communication.
"When I came to AUBG I didn't know what I wanted to do," Myakotin said. "Early on I saw a poster saying that journalist and filmmaker Melody Gilbert is looking for a [student assistant] to help her with her films. I remember the first time I was going to her office I had no idea what documentary filmmaking is. I just had to go to Wikipedia and read as much as I could before going to her because I thought she was going to question me on these things. Since the first meeting with her, my life completely changed. I didn't think I was going to be in film, I didn't think I was going to be working on documentaries and I really love what I am doing right now."
During their student years, Myakotin and Naglis were part of the AUBG Documentary Filmmaking Club that, with the support of Gilbert, screened documentaries and brought prominent international filmmakers on campus every week.
"When I came to AUBG, I decided I wanted to pursue a degree in Political Science and International Relations and I did stick to it, but meeting Melody also gave me a love for documentaries," Naglis said. "In addition to that, I was interested in politics and that also included an interest in human rights. I did a minor in European Studies and this all provided me with enough context that later on [when working on ‘Welcome to Chechnya’] helped me do the research, understand the structures, understand the international relations, see what institutions exist in the EU and around the world that take interest in the issue."
The alumni, who currently live in New York, say they hold fond memories of their time in Blagoevgrad. “I think it is actually a perfect town to be a student,” Myakotin said. “Its geographical proximity to the capital is very lucrative and we had a great time in Blagoevgrad. The student body was really diverse so living in Blagoevgrad felt like we are traveling all over the world. And the locals were extremely warm to us.”