By Umberto Bacchi
MILAN, June 24 (Openly) - A U.S. director, who posed as a tourist to document a crackdown on LGBT+ people in Chechnya, said on Wednesday he hoped his film using digital face swaps to conceal identities would make the persecution of gay and lesbian people there undeniable.
Authorities in the autonomous, deeply conservative, southern Russian region have long denied what human rights groups and media have described as a purge, with dozens of LGBT+ people rounded-up and tortured since 2017.
In "Welcome to Chechnya", director David France shadows Russian activists as they try to smuggle LGBT+ men and women out Chechnya through a network of shelters and safe houses to then find them asylum in a western country.
Filmed over a period of 20 months starting in the summer of 2017, the movie features several firsthand accounts of gay and lesbian people who say they were electrocuted, beaten and threatened by security forces because of their sexuality.
But to make the film as realistic as possible while protecting those involved, France pioneered a new technique using artificial intelligence to digitally swap their faces with those of other people - mainly LGBT+ activists in New York.
"I had promised them that I would try and find a way to give them back their voices," France said, explaining that blurring or blacking the faces would have not delivered that.
"You see people laugh, you see people cry in the film. All of that is true. And we're able to see it because they're wearing somebody else's (face) ... It really did restore humanity to the people in the film, and did it safely."
France, who was nominated for an Oscar for the 2012 AIDS documentary "How to Survive a Plague", said he filmed most of the footage with small tourist cameras and cellphones to avoid attracting unwanted attention.
When stopped by police in Chechnya, France said he claimed to be a football-crazy traveller interested in following the steps of the Egyptian national team which stayed in the mainly Muslim Caucasian region during the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
"I made this film as a witness tool ... the world will witness what happens there ... and it can't be denied anymore," France told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a video interview.
The digital face swap trick is fully revealed when one of the main characters, Maxim Lapunov, decides to go public with allegations of torture and his real face is unveiled during a press conference.
Lapunov is currently appealing to Europe's top rights court, claiming his case was not properly investigated by Russian authorities - which have said a preliminary probe found no evidence of arrests and torture.
Chechnya's Moscow-backed president Ramzan Kadyrov has previously denied human rights abuses. His spokesman has said there could be no attacks on gay men because there were no such people in Chechnya.
The movie contains harrowing phone footage obtained by LGBT+ activists showing attacks on men and women accused of being gay.
In one such moment, when a group forces two men out of the car accusing them of kissing, one of the aggressors is heard saying: "All our problems are because of people like you".
France said that line was among the most important in the film for it highlighted the extreme consequences of the anti-gay rhetoric increasingly being pushed across the world.
"It draws attention away from the fundamental and systemic problems, and instead blames the mere existence of LGBTQ people and creates this fiction that if only we could get rid of LGBTQ people, everything would be much better," he said. France said he was moved and surprised by the selflessness showed by Russian LGBT+ activists, many of them women, who put their lives in danger to help others.
"The love that the activists are able to show in such a selfless way for these total strangers to comfort them, to help heal them, to protect them and to escort them to safety is ... an expression of humanity like I've never seen before," he said.
"Welcome to Chechnya" airs on June 30 in the United States on HBO and the following day in Britain on BBC Four.
(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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