Professor Nichols Discusses Use of 'Deepfake' Tech to Protect People's Identities in Documentaries

Wednesday, July 01, 2020
Photo of two men on an airplane, with one holding his left hand over his eyes
HBO's documentary “Welcome to Chechnya” uses “deepfake” technology to protect identities of LGBTQ people facing persecution.

THE NEW YORK TIMES -- “It’s an essential part of our total cultural history: the face as window, the core of our identity, the most distinguishing feature of the body,” said Bill Nichols, professor emeritus at San Francisco State University and a pioneer in the field of documentary studies. “When you have a lack of the actual face, in most cases it will induce a sense of disturbance.”

But “Welcome to Chechnya” could represent the introduction of a new kind of “soft mask,” one that hides a subject’s identity while still allowing for a complex emotional attachment. Nichols said he was won over by France’s film. “It’s a huge enterprise but I think it works,” he added. “It allows us to feel that whammy of: This guy was beaten up and tortured and electrocuted and I am seeing him — him being his ‘face’ — bare his soul.”