Celebrity deepfakes -- audio or video manipulated or created using generative AI technology to feature a prominent public figure doing or saying things they probably wouldn't do -- are becoming more pervasive with each passing day. Megastar Taylor Swift, comedian George Carlin and even President Joe Biden have all been recent victims of potentially damaging deepfake videos in recent months. One filmmaker is now using the tech to fight back against what he believes is an authoritarian regime.
Polish director Patryk Vega, also known as Besaleel, used his own AI-generated deepfake technology to undermine the legitimacy of Vladimir Putin. His latest English-language movie, "Putin," uses deepfake tech to superimpose the face of the Russian president onto an actor and tell the story of Putin's life from youth until today. The filmmaker says it's an attempt to help viewers understand the disturbed psyche of the Russian "dictator."
"Our film portrays Putin's life, starting at the age of 10 when he was maltreated by his stepfather, through the Chechen war, terrorist attacks in Dubrovka and Beslan, to the war in Ukraine and events like Bucha," Vega explained in a statement.
Vega's initial public viewing in Ukraine was more of a performance art than a screening. The suburb of Borodyanka, some 32 miles northwest of Kyiv, is a particularly hard-hit area of the country. There, he positioned a projector and screen attended to by hundreds of mannequins, representing victims of the war. The scene he showed featured Putin filling a diaper in a hospital as a general briefs him on the status of the Russian military's 'special operation' in Ukraine.
"This was challenging because we couldn't bring Putin to the studio," he explained. "It took us a year to develop our own technology and achieve the desired effect."
The movie was also screened for war veterans in Irpin, another suburb of the Ukrainian capital, along with soldiers currently fighting the Russians on frontlines closest to the city, hoping to capture the attention of Western journalists. Vega believes the world needs to hear about it.
"For Putin, Ukraine is just a battleground with the West," he said. "Russians believe they are saving people of Russian origin from Ukrainian territory, which they consider a quasi-state. My film is an appeal for the mobilization of the West, because the only path for all of us is to collectively defeat Putin in this war."
Although the intended purpose of Vega's deepfake of Putin is different from those used to portray, say, Taylor Swift, using AI to generate this kind of imagery for film and television was one of the primary issues behind the 2023 Screen Actors Guild strike. Vega is one of Poland's biggest filmmakers and is mostly known for mob movies where the good guys take down gangs of criminals. He says the movie is an artistic protest.
"I am a person stigmatized by communism, as I grew up in communist Poland," he said. "At the same time, I have been shaped by the audiovisual culture of Hollywood. For that very reason, I find myself capable of translating the intricacies of Eastern culture into the language of the West."
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