I had the privilege of speaking with three artists and activists, directors Sophie Compton and Reuben Hamlyn as well as producer Elizabeth Woodward, about their impactful documentary, “Another Body.” Just as deep fake technology conveyed the protagonist’s ever-morphing identity in Dina Amer’s “You Resemble Me”, so does this unsettling new form of technology play a role in this film. We follow a college student, named “Taylor,” who’s face we don’t see and real name we do not learn, but her story is completely true. Taylor finds out from a college friend that her face is on a porn site that is linked to her real name, and the name of her hometown and school. This was non-consensual and a clear act of digital sexual violence.
The deep fake technology brings anonymity to the subject, and in doing so, brings a powerful freedom for her to tell her story. We talked about how Sophie, Reuben and Elizabeth came together for this impactful film, and how they, together with Taylor, faced a new digital frontier of #MeToo. During our interview, co-director Sophie Compton told me that “the minimization of this issue is vast,” because people think that the internet as not real because what is being done is online. But all this does, according to Sophie, is create a silencing effect.
Elizabeth Woodward, who also produced “You Resemble Me,” said that “it feels like we are at a tipping point.” She talked about the impact campaign they’ve been doing alongside the film, #MyImageMyChoice, which has created a platform for women and other people to speak out about their image-based sexual abuse. Websites like MrDeepFake are allowing people to benefit financially off of this abuse, and with more voices coming together, along with a petition against the website and other platforms like that one that has garnered over 50,000 signatures, we appear to be on a hopeful road toward change. But until that change happens, things could get much worse. That is why this film is so important.
How did you come to this project? Let’s start with you, Sophie.
Sophie Compton (SC): Reuben and I have been friends for years, and we’ve worked in a lot in different areas in film. I’ve primarily been telling female stories of injustice, and Reuben is just amazing at his craft as a filmmaker. Through Reuben’s academic research of looking into right wing communities, he discovered this issue about digital violence against women. We came together to tell this story, and I think it really required both of our skill sets. Individually, we could not have made this film on our own.
Elizabeth, I think it’s so interesting that you produced this film and “You Resemble Me” in how both films use deep fake technology. Can you talk to me about how you connected with Sophie and Reuben, and how this work with deep fake technology started?
Elizabeth Woodward (EW): This project was actually the original deep fake project.
EW: I met Sophie after she came up to me after a screening of “The Great Hack” in London, which I produced, and it was about Cambridge Analytica and the Facebook scandal. She told me that she was making this film about deep fakes and I had vaguely heard about this technology. Sophie shared with me that the real problem about this technology was not politics, but it was porn and violence against women. Following our meeting, I met up with Reuben who just moved to New York and then decided to sign on and help make this film a reality.
We spent some time trying to find a deep fake artist to collaborate with on this project and we linked up with Fernando (Sánchez Liste), who is a wonderful creative collaborator for this film. He also worked with us on “You Resemble Me,” a narrative film I produced. We were in the process of finishing the film after we had just met Fernando for this project. Dina Amer, the director of “You Resemble Me,” wanted to bring to life an identity crisis of a character in a fictional film. We enlisted Fernando to use deep fake technology to help show the identity crisis of this character. So even though this project came first, I worked with Fernando first on that film. He is really a great talent.
Can you talk about how Taylor and Julia became the focal point of this project, and also talk about the actresses that were the face veils for them?
Reuben Hamlyn (RH): We spent a long time doing really horrible mind-warping research on 4Chan. I tried to get a firm grasp on how this community was operating, but also seeing if we could scope out potential contributors for this film. During this process, we were also speaking with various experts, and we wanted to make sure that when we found someone that we were going to work with, we could support them as much as we could. We had been trying to find out whether or not it would be possible to locate eight other places of deep fake that might have popped up across the internet. We found that if we found one of them on one site, they would likely be found on all of the others.
We made a screen shot of one that we found on 4Chan and when we image searched it, up came up Porn Hub and XVideos, and we thought that this image was a deep fake and non-consensual pornography. The deep fake was linked to Taylor’s account, and given that her full name was on there and the names of her hometown and school, it was very easy to contact her. We consulted with various deep fake survivors and council about whether or not to approach victims about the project. Ultimately we decided rather than diving right in about the documentary, we’d say, “We want you to be aware that we came across these deep fakes of you. Here’s a whole place for resources and here’s where you can see legal council and other ways to find support.” Then we would introduce our project and ask if they’d like to participate, and if so, they could feel free to reach out to us.
After a few conversations, Taylor was grateful that we reached out in a more delicate way than we could have. I really feel that after we told her about our process and about anonymization and safe guarding, she trusted us a lot, and decided she wanted to participate. She wanted to use her voice, and that is how she got involved.
SC: I think something that is really specific to this project is how we approached the subjects of our film. When we reached out to Taylor, we made it known that we knew how hard it would be to even consider sharing her story with anyone, and we knew that anonymization was essential to protecting her. To be honest, I don’t think Taylor would have ever began this journey with us if that wasn’t the case. She really understood from the very beginning the activist power and potential in reclaiming this technology. This really spoke to her as a victim.
EW: And I’ll just answer on the casting front. We worked with a great casting agency called Casting Double to link up with actors who were some type of activist and got them excited about participating and lending their face to Taylor and Julia. That really was a cool process to give an acting role that we could use to tell these anonymous stories in this emotionally resonant way.
How true is what really happened compared to what we see in the documentary?
SC: It was really important to us that everything we anonymized was just like it happened and we only changed the details that were identifying. We wanted to reflect the exact truth and the spirit of the story. Most of the messages you see are re-written versions of the original message with just the names changed. For example, the person who notified Taylor about the deep fakes was one of her college friends, and that is how it played out in the film.
Can you talk about how Julia came to this project?
SC: They had a group discord, Julia’s boyfriend actually messaged in that discord about the deep fakes. Taylor was originally worried that they were talking about her deep fakes, and that it had come out to her friendship group. After she realized there was another person who was targeted, Taylor and Julia came together on this project.
In a past interview I did with journalist Nancy Miller about her relationship with true crime writer Michelle McNamara, she quoted Michelle’s husband, comedian and actor Patton Oswalt. I always like to share this quote when I discuss films that are related to activism against sexual violence. He said, “The world is angry when they see young beautiful, smart, and vivacious women living independently. And there is this compulsion to want to steal that from them. And that is profound misogyny.“
I feel that quote is very resonant during what we’ve been seeing recognized more and more in our Post-#MeToo era. There seems to be a change in the social climate about what is permissible, what is seen as assault, and what is seen as rape. Can you talk about this evolution connected to these stories?
SC: One of the really important things that #MeToo did was reveal to us how much we’re not talking about.
All of those accounts came up, and there were male communities across the world reacting like, “we didn’t realize this was happening to the women that we knew.” It was very chilling as a woman to realize that I wasn’t talking about these things to my male friends, and not enough of us were in the communities of women. I think that in post-#MeToo, we started to understand how profound the silencing is of women’s experiences of sexual violence and assault. But there really has never been a digital #MeToo with people speaking out on a mass scale about the digital violence they’ve experienced. One reason is because there is a bigger threat with digital crimes in how a crime could resurface. One of our experts was talking about how digital crimes do not exist on the axis of space and time because that image can resurface at any moment.
Another aspect of it is the huge and vast minimization. Like if it’s not even real, is it a big deal? People may say, “It’s not even your face, it’s not even your body.” The minimization is vast. All of that creates this huge silencing effect. We’ve really seen it following this story especially when we connected with the YouTube community. No one had ever said a word until ASMR YouTuber Gibi did. She was the first person to speak out about these kinds of crimes and how it had been done to her. I think something that is important to know is how hard it was for her to speak out. Even though she is an incredibly strong forthright person, and is a fierce champion of these kinds of issues, she just thought, ‘it’s not worth the risk.’ But what we’ve seen since she has spoken out is there’s been the recent Twitch streamer situation, and how they are addressing this issue along with other streamers. I’m really sure that was because Gibi made a foundation for these issues. But that kind of silence has been such a block on these conversations.
Elizabeth, did you want to comment?
EW: I guess I just wanted to add that alongside the doc, we’ve been running this impact campaign called #MyImageMyChoice and through production, we’ve been put in touch with so many women who’ve experienced other types of image-based sexual virtual abuse. So it’s not only deep fakes, although there are so few survivors of deep fakes that spoke out, as Sophie said. But it feels like we are at a tipping point. The government bodies are starting to pay attention and have conversations about this. We contributed testimonies to the UK Law Commission, the World Economic Forum, and the White House Task Force that Taylor speaks with. There is a lot of work to do, but there is also hope that people are paying attention.
What do you hope people see in this film and what do impact do you hope it makes?
RH: What I hope most is that people will be inspired by Taylor. I have so much respect for her. I hope and believe that my respect for Taylor shines through in every moment in this film. Beyond that and through that, I want people feel and to understand the importance of speaking out, even if it’s not on a public stage which puts you at risk from retaliation of your communities. It’s important that when it’s a crime like this, you’re not dealing with it in isolation. You can seek support of the people around you. You need that validation, you need people to tell you that this is a terrible and horrible situation and give you that emotional support. I really want people to understand that.
I also want people to understand that online misogyny does not exist in a vacuum, that there is a deep interrelation with what is happening online to what is happening in the world around us. If there is not attention paid to changing the cultural trends with young men, as well as changing the easy accessing of sites like 4Chan, and MrDeepFakes, it is likely that things are going to get worse.
SC: I really want and hope people take away subtlety, and understand the minute ways that silencing occurs in a real life. I think that it can become almost like a slightly packed tagline. The power of speaking up can sometimes almost be stripped of its meaning. I want people to see each of the minute building blocks that would both prevent someone and enable someone to do that and how huge it is for anyone to talk about something that was just as traumatizing and intended to silence and shame them. I really hope people can understand the layers of Taylor’s experience through watching the film. I also hope, like Reuben said, the film will act as a rallying cry to rewrite how the internet is governed by showing what happens when there are no laws, when websites like MrDeepFakes are allowed to proliferate and become commercially viable businesses. What does that do to the individual victims? People can stack those things up against each other, and then push for change.
EW: I’ll just add that one of my favorite parts of the film occurs after the investigation, when Taylor tells lawyer Adam Hodge that she feels she hasn’t accomplished a lot, and he says to her that what you’ve done is extraordinary, you’ve come so far and you’ve really advocated well for yourself. I think it’s such a beautiful and important story for impact purposes to remind survivors and victims of any kind of abuse just how much you can do to advocate for yourself. I think Taylor is so brave and such an inspirational figure.
Sophie and Reuben have called it the digital #MeToo and we hope the film will be a kick-off point for more conversation, and hopefully change. We started a petition as part of our impact campaign to bring down MrDeepFakes because there is no reason why that website should be allowed to exist. There is no real justification there.
SC: Totally. I’ve gotten over 50,000 signatures for this petition. The appetite is clearly there because as Elizabeth says there is zero justification for these kinds of sites.
The documentary “Another Body” is on their festival run, follow their #MyImageMyChoice campaign at myimagemychoice.org