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Excerpts of HBO documentary "Welcome to Chechnya"

Documentary filmmakers often shield the identities of people who might be harmed for speaking out. But typical tactics like blurring faces and distorting voices can make it hard for audiences to connect emotionally. A new documentary uses deepfakes to protect the privacy of at-risk subjects.

What’s new: The makers of the HBO documentary “Welcome to Chechnya” deepfaked faces of gay men and women fleeing the Russian republic of Chechnya, where LGBTQ people are being persecuted, the New York Times reported.
How it works: Visual effects supervisor Ryan Laney developed the process, which he calls Censor Veil, to paint a realistic decoy face over each of the film’s 23 subjects.

  • The process combines an autoencoder with conventional visual effects, Laney told The Batch.
  • U.S. LGBTQ activists volunteered to have their faces stand in for those of interviewees. Their images were captured using an array of nine cameras.
  • The filmmakers blurred the faces deliberately to signal to the audience that identities were hidden.

What they’re saying: “This technology allowed us to just stretch the faces . . . over the images that I shot in the film. The face moves exactly the same way. It smiles, it cries in exactly the same way, but it is somebody else’s face.” — David France, director of “Welcome to Chechnya,” in Variety.

Behind the news: An estimated 40,000 gay men and women live in Chechnya. They are at risk of arrest, torture, and detention in secret camps. Many have been killed.

Why it matters: This technique provides a new way for journalists to preserve the impact of credible witnesses while protecting their privacy.

We’re thinking: Deepfakes are infamous for their potential to propagate mistaken identities. This work (and similar initiatives like the BLM Privacy Bot) demonstrates that swapping one person’s face for another’s can have a socially beneficial use.


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