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Risk Aware Filmmaking: Devising New Documentary Security Protocols for David France’s Welcome to Chechnya

Welcome to Chechnya (courtesy of HBO)

Despite its ironically inviting title, Welcome to Chechnya, a new documentary by director David France, depicts a harrowing tale of escape. The film, which is being released by HBO on June 30, follows a group of Russian activists working to rescue LGBTQ people from a vicious anti-gay government campaign in Chechnya. Beginning in 2017, Chechen authorities detained, tortured and, in some cases, forcibly disappeared more than 100 (likely many more) members of the gay community, according to reports by journalists and human rights groups. Paced like a spy thriller, the documentary captures the Chechens’ perilous journey, aided by the Russian LGBT Network, as they sneak in and out of safe houses and attempt to flee into exile. 

To protect the film’s crew and subjects from the Chechen and Russian authorities—whose security apparatuses are known for their sophistication and their ruthlessness—the Welcome to Chechnya team developed extensive security protocols that affected every step of the process. 

While the severity of the risks involved in making Welcome to Chechnya may be unique to its geopolitical context, the lessons the production team learned about the processes and resources necessary to safely make a documentary on sensitive issues are relevant for the entire field. In this current tumultuous moment, in which filmmakers face both a global pandemic and targeted attacks by law enforcement while covering anti-police brutality protests, that knowledge is more critical than ever.

Protocols and passwords: Laying the ground work for a secure production

Inspired by a March 2017 The New Yorker article by Masha Gessen about anti-gay purges in Chechnya, France first traveled to Russia later that year. A short fact-finding trip turned into weeks of filming, as events quickly unfolded at the Moscow shelter where much of the documentary’s action takes place. Joining France was the film’s cinematographer, Askold Kurov, a well-known documentary filmmaker in Russia. To remain as low-profile as possible, France and Kurov decided on the filming conditions that would characterize most of the subsequent shoots over 18 months of production. “The biggest security issue was not revealing that we’re making a film and that we’re talking to people who are deep in hiding,” France said. “We established on a phone call before going over that we would not be a crew. We would not have a sound team, we would not have a PA, we would not have a DIT [digital imaging technician]. We were just two friends paying a visit.”

The documentary was mostly filmed on a Sony prosumer camera that shoots in 4K and is operable by cellphone. Kurov surreptitiously filmed many scenes while holding the camera under his armpit “as though he were just lugging it around,” France said. “He’d have his nose buried in his phone doing the framing, focusing and shooting. He looked like he was checking his stock portfolio.” France shot additional footage on an iPhone 10. 

The security constraints resulted in claustrophobic cinematography, underscoring the story’s themes. The majority of the documentary unfolds in indoor locations and often captures intimate moments—an embrace as a couple reunites, the same men tenderly bathing each other—in close up. Establishing shots and geographic shifts between cities are filmed through car windshields and airplane windows, a notable departure from the sweeping drone shots that have become ubiquitous in documentaries. “It’s my first truly vérité film,” said France, who previously had worked extensively with archival footage and interviews. “The idea of the film taking place in this enclosed way with a camera that doesn’t get much depth, all that running and jerking of cameras as we’re hiding them in our pockets—we decided to lift that language up and make it into the language of this film.”

Having received security guidance previously, France took precautions on his first trip to Russia, such as communicating via the encrypted messaging service Signal and encrypting hard drives to secure their footage. “But,” he said, “I didn’t understand the level of everyday security that people take as ordinary Russians until I got back to New York.” 

While France was away on the first shoot, Igor Myakotin, a then 24-year-old Russian filmmaker who had studied at the New School in New York, began working on the project in a general support role (and eventually became a co-producer on the film). Myakotin realized that keeping a film of this scale secret over the course of several years would require more sophisticated security measures. “We needed to figure out what the risks were,” Myakotin said. “How [are we going] to continue filming, how are we going to edit this film and how can we safeguard the footage?” Born and raised in Russia, Myakotin said he knew “what people are capable of doing, especially the Russian government. You have to expect the worst. That’s why we had to safeguard the production in the most secure way possible.”

Myakotin also cited Laura Poitras’s Edward Snowden documentary, CITIZENFOUR, as having informed his understanding of government surveillance. Thanks to the subject matter of her previous films, Poitras was already deeply familiar with surveillance issues and digital security methods when Snowden first reached out to her. However, despite France and veteran producer Alice Henty’s years of experience in documentaries and journalism, the Welcome to Chechnya team did not share this background. Jess Search, an executive producer on the film and chief executive of Doc Society, an early supporter of the film, supplied the filmmakers with risk checklist templates. The organization’s Safe + Secure initiative publishes free security resources for documentary filmmakers and funders. (From 2018 to 2019, I was the Safe + Secure executive at Doc Society and occasionally still informally assist the initiative as the Safe + Secure executive-at-large). Henty and Myakotin also combed through available online resources, such as those provided by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, “then adapted them for our particular environment,” Henty said, creating separate protocols for every step of the filmmaking process. 

Doc Society also connected them with experts who advised on different aspects of security. Field of Vision, the documentary filmmaking unit co-founded by Poitras, helped identify potential risks and develop systems to keep their data safe. London-based firm Security First assisted in developing security precautions on shoots. An additional digital security company in Washington, D.C., aided with securing their lines of communication. 

Data protection measures included “air gapping” the edit suite as well as the laptop brought to Russia, a process that involved taking new computers that had never been connected to the internet and removing their ability to ever do so. In the field, footage was immediately downloaded onto encrypted hard drives and deleted off memory cards, which were then written over with new data. Multiple copies were made of each encrypted hard drive, each with its own cover story (“Joy’s wedding photos”) and its own route out of the country (usually hand delivered by someone who didn’t know the encryption password). When the iPhone that France used on his first trip to Russia later mysteriously replaced his voicemail message with a recording of Russian speakers, it was immediately placed in his refrigerator in New York and has been there ever since. 

During post-production, the edit room in the New York office was kept free of any internet-connected devices, requiring visitors to relinquish their cellphones. Footage translation was done in-house by Russian speakers whose trustworthiness had been vetted through Myakotin and Gessen’s connections in the New York Russian community. The translator’s computers were disconnected from the internet and positioned so that their screens were not visible through the office’s windows. Before leaving the office for lunch, staff would dismount hard drives from computers and lock the edit room. An alarm system was installed in the office. 

Risk assessment can be “tedious,” Myakotin said. “It’s a lot of paperwork. But it’s so important to be extra careful and extra organized.” For every step of the filmmaking process, the team had “to think about the implications and potential risks,” said Henty. “We talked through everything. In our daily production meeting, there was a section for security. It made the process of decision-making slower, which is painful when you have deadlines and you’re in production,” she said. “But we have a responsibility to protect each other, and more important, to protect the subjects.” 

After developing the protocols, it was critical to implement them consistently. “There’s no point in having protocols if they aren’t communicated well,” said Henty. “You need to think about every phone call you make.” All conversations—be they with a collaborator, potential funder or distributor—took place over encrypted channels and only after an NDA had been signed. “We had to impress upon them the dangers,” Henty said. “Some people got scared off and wouldn’t take our phone calls. But we had to do it.” 

Filming under deep cover  

As complicated as the data protection measures were, the team’s greatest security concern was for the crew and subjects’ physical safety during production. Before each shoot, a distinct written protocol was drafted that included a “plan b” and “plan c” should things go wrong. The production had a criminal defense attorney on retainer in every city where filming took place in case of arrest.

The most high-risk shoot, and the only one to happen in Chechnya, occurred near the end of production. David Isteev, the Russian LGBT Network’s crisis response coordinator and a central character in the film, alerted the team of the group’s plan to extract a girl in grave danger named Anya (all the subjects fleeing from Chechnya appear under aliases). With only a week to prepare, Security First’s Rory Byrne helped France develop a cover story for the trip as an eccentric, rich American and devoted fan of Egypt’s soccer team, who was retracing the team’s tracks in the wake of their 2018 World Cup visit to Chechnya. 

These were “deep cover” stories, France said, because “you can’t just say you’re an Egyptian soccer fan. You’ve got to know the names. You can’t just say you’re a tourist. Where’s your tourist map? Where’s your ticket stub from Lenin’s tomb? So, we did all that stuff.” They also developed code words and selected a cell phone emergency button to communicate with the New York production team in case of emergency. 

Those traveling to Chechnya divided into two groups. The first, an all-female team, including a cinematographer shooting a GoPro from her fanny pack, would accompany Anya under the cover story that they were shopping for wedding dresses. The second was a diversion team, poised to distract attention from the authorities if the first group was in trouble. This group included France, who filmed much of the action with an iPhone held at his hip, wedged between his knees or aloft in the air pretending to take a selfie. 

Several times zones away, in London and New York, the security consultant and production team were taking shifts to continuously monitor France’s location through Life360, a location-sharing app. At the end of the shoot, Henty watched for several nerve-racking hours as France’s location stayed motionless in place on the app. All lines of communication went silent. 

France, she would later find out, had been detained by Chechen authorities while preparing to fly out of the Grozny airport. After furtively dropping the phone on which he’d been shooting to the floor, where it was recovered by a team member, France followed the officers into a room for questioning. There, through a translating team member, he recounted his cover story and showed them a burner phone, complete with footage of the Egyptian soccer team. After some incredulity and interrogation, the officers sent him on his way. The filmmaking team, activists and Anya boarded their flights and flew off to their respective destinations. All safely escaped from Chechnya. 

A secret film, disguised identities and unknown dangers

As risky as the production stage of Welcome to Chechnya was, post-production presented unprecedented challenges. From the beginning, France had promised his subjects he would disguise their identities effectively enough so that even “your mother won’t recognize you.” But rather than show their faces in silhouette or blurred, France wanted to convey their humanity and emotions in a way that wouldn’t distract the audience. 

After months of experimenting with the assistance of a brain science expert, the team settled on a never-before-used technique in documentary film: face replacement. Or, as France described it to IndieWire, an “inversion of deep fake technology.” With the help of green screens, VFX technicians, a software architect, machine learning and activists who volunteered to “donate” their faces, the subjects appear in the film in their own bodies but under a kind of dermic protective shield. 

Choosing and carrying out the facial disguise technology added nearly a year to the post-production process. As with the edit suite, a secure VFX studio was created that was sealed off from the internet. Any other identifying features in the footage—from jewelry to landscapes viewed through windows of homes in undisclosed locations—were altered as well. 

Throughout this lengthy and wide-ranging process, the team had to maintain the secrecy of the project for the safety of their subjects. Instead of submitting the film to festivals or showing it to potential buyers in traditional ways, the production would deliver encrypted hard drives or insist on hosting screenings in their office. In some cases, they personally flew the footage to Los Angeles and confiscated the cellphones of studio heads before screenings. 

The scale of documentary making—both the amount of time and number of people that are required—greatly complicates risk mitigation. Even with a production as security-conscious as France’s, leaks are highly likely. In the case of Welcome to Chechnya, the only known breach occurred by chance at an AIDS benefit France and I both attended in 2018. (I’ve known France since he made his first documentary, How to Survive a Plague, in which my late father, an AIDS activist, is a central character). 

Midway through the event, a presenter let slip on stage that France was working on a film about the LGBTQ community in Chechnya. I watched the team immediately mobilize to contain the leak, alerting subjects and team members in the middle of the night in Russia and Europe; speaking with the event videographer and organizers, as well as guests who had been recording the event with cell phones, to make sure the information didn’t leave the room; and scouring the internet for any mention of the film over the course of the night and following days. Ultimately, the leak was contained, and the film remained a secret until a few months before its January 2020 Sundance premiere. By that point, the subjects were prepared and protocols to protect their safety were in place. 

Some of the protagonists, notably two of the activists and one of the victims of Chechen abuse, chose to show their real faces in the film. They and the filmmaking team hope that increased visibility will raise the subjects’ public profiles and make them safer. Nonetheless, security details have accompanied the filmmaking team and subjects to the film’s festival appearances at Sundance and the Berlin Film Festival. Europe is particularly risky, as Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s brutal leader, has been known to send assassins to kill Chechen rivals and exiles across the continent. As recently as February, weeks before the Berlin premiere, a Chechen blogger who had criticized Kadyrov was murdered in northern France. 

The filmmaking team had many long conversations with their subjects about the inherent risks of being associated with the project and jointly developed individual protocols to help protect them should threats arise. While the in-person festival and promotional tour was halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, France still hopes to eventually show the film in Russia. 

While there has been no reaction yet from authorities, the trailer has been widely viewed over the past month in Russia. (At the time of the trailer’s release, Kadyrov was being flown to Moscow for treatment for COVID-19. He has apparently recovered and since returned to Chechnya). Whatever happens after the film’s release, “We never stop worrying about the security of subjects,” Henty said. “I don’t think we ever will.” 

Lessons for filmmakers and the documentary community 

Extracting specific security pointers from any film is difficult because there is no “one universal protocol you can apply to any project,” Myakotin said. “The geopolitics of what we were doing are unique,” France said. “We had to address the specific reality on the ground in Chechnya and other places where we traveled.”

Nonetheless, the filmmaking team has broader takeaways that are relevant for filmmakers working on sensitive topics, as well as the documentary community that supports them. The constantly in-flux nature of documentary making means effective protocols should be implemented as early as possible but also remain flexible, Myakotin said. Consent from subjects needs to be revisited regularly. In the case of additional crew members living in Russia, for example, Myakotin said the team repeatedly asked whether they wished to be named or remain anonymous in the credits, up until shortly before the film’s premiere. He also stressed that when a leak happens, such as at the AIDS benefit, it’s imperative not to “hide it” from the crew and subjects but rather “mobilize your forces and deal with it,” and ideally have a contingency plan in place beforehand.

Henty said she wished she had realized earlier the psychological impact the film’s subject matter would have on the team. The production company is now having regular group therapy sessions to process the impact of working on Welcome to Chechnya, as well as preparing for a new documentary they are developing about COVID-19 (a project that requires its own stringent security protocols). 

Long a taboo subject, awareness around mental health and trauma issues has risen significantly in recent years in documentary and journalism circles but is still infrequently addressed within productions. “I see now the value of doing [group therapy],” Henty said, especially for the editing, translation and transcription teams who spend long periods of time viewing the footage. Moving forward, she is “really committed to making sure that there is a line in the budget for it.” 

Sufficient budgets for security support more broadly is also critical. Henty said funders never questioned their budgeted security-related needs, which included the security advisors, vaults for secure storage of copy hard drives while their master drives crossed borders, the installation of additional apps, encryption software, VPNs, insurance and more. She recognized, however, the challenge faced by less-established filmmakers in accessing that level of funds. 

Despite initiatives that provide free online security resources, “we still had to bring in top-notch security advisers that were very expensive,” France said. “In these increasingly dangerous times, there needs to be a recognition in the funding world that security is an essential part of film financing. If Sundance, for example, were to have a special fund for security, that would be really cool.”

France and Henty specifically cited the valuable support they received from Sundance as they struggled with the face disguises in post-production, and said all their funders and festivals had been generous and flexible in response to their digital security and secrecy needs. But a handful of smaller funders, they said, were scared off by the secure communications requests or wouldn’t budge on requirements to receive grant applications through website portals. Myakotin noted that funders and festivals might be less accommodating for less-established filmmakers. For those without personal connections to these organizations, he said, there should be accessible ways to contact someone directly about security exemptions from application rules. 

While the filmmaking team is relieved they were able to maintain the film’s secrecy, they know their protagonists’ safety will always, to some extent, be at risk. For the subjects still in deep hiding, France says the question is, “How will that ever end?” He hopes the COVID-19 pandemic won’t thwart the film’s impact campaign. While he recognizes the challenges of bringing Kadyrov to justice, someday, he hopes, there might be an investigation to determine which of his close associates is responsible for the brutal treatment of the film’s lone public victim, Maxim Lapunov. 

For now, in the weeks leading up to the HBO premiere, the team is monitoring social media for Russian disinformation campaigns and preparing their subjects for the film’s wide release. There’s an “eerie feeling that we’ve gone against the system,” Myakotin said. “You never know what’s going to happen, but we’re as prepared as we can be.”

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