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Interview: Director David France and Visual Effects Supervisor Ryan Laney on Shielding Activists with Technology in ‘Welcome to Chechnya’

It’s unusual to see a documentary on the Oscar shortlist for Best Visual Effects, but that’s intrinsic to what Welcome to Chechnya is all about. The film, which follows LGBTQ activists fighting for their lives against an oppressive regime intent on denying their very existence, is also a finalist for Best Documentary Feature. Awards Radar had the chance to talk with director David France, a past Oscar nominee for 2012’s How to Survive a Plague, and visual effects supervisor Ryan Laney to learn about how they used technology known for producing widely-reviled deepfakes to protect the identities of the subjects in their film. Read on for more about their fascinating and incredible work.

Q: How did you become interested in and attached to this project?

David France: I started working on the project after reading an article in the New Yorker in the summer of 2017 that talked about not only the genocide going on in Chechnya but also the work that those activists had taken on themselves because they were not finding any defense in governments around the world to come to their aid to stop the killing. The building of that underground work and all of this wild, almost Nazi-era activity seemed so noteworthy to me and remarkable that I reached out to them and said, let me try to cover this and find a way to bring a bigger audience to this problem.  

Ryan Laney: David and his team had been looking for a solution on how to cover the faces due to the pretty intense shooting environment that didn’t allow for a full camera crew or big cameras. They shot everything on hidden cameras and mobile phones and things like that, so they didn’t have the opportunity to hide faces as you would normally do with witness testimony. The idea of bringing this out of the shadows, giving light to the story in a human way, was part of David’s motivation for the way he shot.

David: Yeah, I totally wanted to experience their journeys with them. It was a negotiation about how to handle the safety and security issues. Just about getting in and out of this underground network, and then once I got there talking to people about their interests in appearing in a film, telling their stories in a film, also their concerns about doing it and being hunted wherever they go. It was a huge leap of faith for them to say to me that they would be willing to let me shoot this and work with me as I investigated to try to find a way to anonymize them in ways that also lifted up their humanity and gave them back their power to narrate their own stories of survival.

Ryan: Impressively, David promised them he would protect them without quite knowing how.

David: And impressively, they agreed, even though they knew I didn’t know how. It was all a big experiment which might have failed. Everything we tried before we started working with Ryan failed. We had reached a juncture where we actually talked out loud about whether we would ever be able to finish this film.

Ryan: So we got involved around the fall of 2018. We saw the scanner darkly/rotoscope effect really wasn’t hiding the features of the subjects the way David needed. We had seen some University of Glasgow research on symmetry of faces and attractiveness of faces, and it was these composites of faces of people around the world. We thought that maybe we could form a transfer function between different faces. On that thread, mixed in with style transfer, we discovered some deep learning techniques that would actually allow us to create this transfer function to change someone’s identity in place without a full 3-D pipeline behind it.

Q: It doesn’t look fake at all, and it’s great to know that something so subversive and negative, typically, is being used for good. What kind of reactions have you gotten from the AI community or other people previously familiar with this technology?

Ryan: Our audience is normal people watching the films and documentary communities, which have been incredibly welcoming to this kind of thing. We were very careful about how we were implementing it, and that helps with how people have been receiving it. At the beginning of the film, there’s the disclaimer that says, these people are protected. For the first twenty shot, we went back in and played up the softness of everything so that we could train the audience in what they were seeing so that they weren’t trying to figure it out. Maxwell Anderson, the second editor on the film, actually went in and removed dialogue on those first twenty scenes so that people could focus visually on what was happening. David was very careful, he got consent from the subjects in the film. All the volunteers knew what was going on, they were consenting. With this disclaimer, the audience is in on it. In the landscape of manipulated media, we wanted to be very careful that we were obvious about what we were doing.

David: I was quickly added to a couple of academic panels that had been called together, one by MIT by the media lab, to reexamine the horrors of AI and deep fake and find ways to counter it in journalism and other media. It wasn’t until looking at Ryan’s work that they realized that AI is not the devil. The deep fake is the devil, AI is just the technique that allowed that to happen. AI has dual moral purpose. What we’ve proved in Welcome to Chechnya is that it can have a really powerful and unique positive impact like nothing else could. In that way, it’s not at all related to deep faking. We were calling it deep truth for a while, because it allowed people to claim their truths where, in any other circumstance, they wouldn’t be able to do it.

Q: What attitudes were expressed by the face and voice doubles? Were they excited to participate? Did they wish they were seen and heard with their own identities or this was a cool way to step in for those who couldn’t?

Ryan: They were all volunteers from the community that, as an act of activism, were lending themselves as shields.

David: They knew that what they were doing was taking on risk so that the people in the film could reduce their risk. It wasn’t so much about wanting to appear in a film but wanting to this direct kind of activism in the area of bringing attention to what’s happening in Chechnya.

Q: Was there anything that you tried to accomplish technically that wasn’t possible or something that surprised you that did work?

David: I don’t think we had to change course in any serious because of the technique. We had finished the film and locked the picture before we began any of this work. We knew that it would suggest to us, in various places, reopening the picture, which it did do. We ended scenes differently and entered clips differently. The technique was so powerful that it really managed to convey exactly what we needed it to convey, and it did it really brilliantly.

Ryan: The footage was challenging. A lot of handheld footage and autoexposure and all the things that visual effects tries to avoid. We got closer than we originally thought we would, and there were times where we dialed back. One of the things that we added was a halo around the face to indicate where things were done, because there were shots, especially medium shots, where you really couldn’t tell. A discerning eye, obviously, a visual effects compositor would be able to pick it off. We added more softness in order to make sure that we were being honest with the audience of what’s going on.

Q: It’s really remarkable to watch, especially in one scene where a face changes and you really understand the degree to which the technology has been used.

Ryan: At that point, we’d spent an hour and a half with Grisha and now he’s Maxim. I remember a conversation with David where they were concerned that people would have fallen in love with Grisha and now, they wouldn’t know how to react to Maxim. I think they ended up playing it off and doing it at the right time in the film. Everybody understood. It was a very powerful moment when I saw it in the theater.

Q: The film played in Odessa and other areas relatively close to Chechnya. What has the reaction been from the international community, and in places close to where this film is set?

David: It’s really interesting how hungrily consumed the film has been the closer you get to Russia. The rollback of civil liberties that has been happening in Russia for the last ten or twelve years is spreading out from there. Poland, for example, where we played at multiple festivals, is a place where a third of the country lives under laws that declare the areas LGBT-free. Gay-free zones, they call them. In Hungary, in Ukraine, these are places where the film has really found an activist audience. We also have been able to release the film inside Russia, which we weren’t expecting at first. It had been bootlegged and pirated. The numbers were stunning. We hit a million views in pirated form in a number of days. That helped us realize that there might be a way to reach everyday Russians with the film. They showed in their comments on those pirated platforms that they were inspired to join their voices and oppose what was happening in the government. We ultimately partnered with BBC News Russian Service to bring the film out officially in the country, in a country where censors limit what can be distributed in films, but not what can be distributed in news. We went through this news platform, the first time ever that BBC ever did that. They did it for this film. They put it in front of their paywall. The film is now available in every household in Russia, which includes all throughout Chechnya. We brought this story home, and they responded, as you can imagine, by denying it all, the Chechen government on state television sponsored a fifteen- or twenty-minute-long segment on the film’s alleged falsehoods and manipulations. The Kremlin has denied even watching the film. It’s been made so present there that we know people have seen it, and we’ve forced them at least into denying it which is an incredible first step.

Q: This film is one of the best and most important documentaries of the year, but what else did you see and find very worthwhile in terms of nonfiction filmmaking that were as powerful as this?

David: What a year for nonfiction filmmaking! Have you seen them all? It’s just an incredible, crazy grouping of films. The one that I’ve been back to multiple times is The Mole Agent. I just love that film. It’s so fun and it’s moving, and it’s full of deeply embedded messages about social justice and family and elder care, and all sorts of really powerful things. I also like Gunda, which is a film without a single word in it. It doesn’t even have a score! It’s so observational. It’s stunning. Just stunning.

Ryan: I’ll second Gunda and also, because I’m from Texas, I have to say Boys State. It’s telling in how we train our youth.

Welcome to Chechnya is available to stream on HBO Max.

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Written by Abe Friedtanzer

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