‘Assassins’ Filmmaker Ryan White on How the Sony Hack Connects to His New Documentary

Filmmaker Ryan White says his documentary feature “Assassins” one of the hardest documentaries he’s made. White’s credits include: “Visible: Out on Television” and “The Keepers.”

The road to “Assassins,” now streaming on virtual cinema took White down into the underbelly of Malaysia, dark alleys, taxis and a dive into the North Korean regime. Kim Jong-nam — half-brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un — was assassinated as he was preparing to board a flight. Doan Thi Huong and Siti Aisyah stood trial for the murder and assassination. However, they told their lawyer they believed they had been recruited for a reality TV show. On hearing that, White was interested in following the trail and trial.

As White told his story and discusses the film’s distribution, he says the release plan in the U.S. was a “bumpier road” because, “I think that feeling from corporations could be hacked in a way that could be devastating to them or their bottom line,” and all fearful trails could lead back to Sony in a way.

I remember seeing this on the news, and then it just vanished from coverage. How did this come your way?

This assassination happened in February 2017. If you look back at that, historically, which feels like a lifetime ago, that was Trump’s first full month in office. He had just been inaugurated a few weeks before this assassination. I think, for Americans, this was just a headline, and yet, it was one of the biggest political assassinations of our lifetime. If it had happened one year prior, it would have been a top news story for months, but because Trump was dominating the airwaves so much at that time, and then and then has for the last four years, it was just a blip on the radar. That’s how I experienced it.

In late 2017, a journalist, Doug Clark wrote an article in GQ Magazine and approached me. He said filmmakers were trying to option it and he wanted a phone call. He wanted advice on it, and I read it.

He was presenting this theory that Siti Aisyah, this Indonesian woman said yes, she was confessing to it, but she had said, ‘I did it unintentionally and I thought I was on a reality TV show.’

The premise of it was so unbelievable that it could conceivably be a real defense for assassinating someone. But my producing partner Jess Hargrave and I got off the call thinking we should throw our hats in the ring.

Three weeks later I was on a flight to Malaysia with a camera. He was introducing me to all his undercover sources which were espionage-like. We were meeting people in dark alleys or taxis. I left not sure if I believed the women, but I knew it was going to be the wildest story we could ever tell.

You mention going into the underbelly of Malaysia and Asia. How did you manage going back and forth to uncover the story as these women faced execution?

It took me 30 hours to get there every time. I was always flying through Taipei and I always had a six-hour layover. Schedule-wise, it was crazy.

We were telling this story about a trial in Malaysia where anything could happen at the last second, and then I would have to fly 30 hours to get there to try to cover it.

The stakes were so high because I had never made a story where the stakes were life and death. It was by far the heaviest film I’ve ever made in that regard, the more we spent time on it, the more I started to believe the women might be innocent. Everybody on the ground was saying that the women would be executed. I was the clear direction it was headed. The prosecution, the police and the judge all thought they were guilty, and there’s no jury system there. So, the judge would have ultimately decided their fate – a mandatory death penalty.

We were making this film about women we believe are innocent and they’re going to be executed. Can we even make a film about this and who will want to watch it if there’s such an injustice? We were prepared to get the film out there soon after they were convicted in a small appeals process that would have happened in Malaysia to try to spark an international outcry and to get to try to get the truth out there before the women were hung.

Thank God, it didn’t go in that direction, but we had a total surprise ending, which no one was expecting, but we were prepared to make like the world’s saddest film.

Let’s not ruin the ending, but the opening has this great video surveillance in the airport. How did you get it, especially from a foreign country?

Getting our hands on that CCTV footage made the film. Without it, I don’t think we could have made a film because that is the play by play of how it all went down. If you want to see whether these women are telling the truth, or they’re lying and you have to be able to match it up against how the actions played in the airport

Once we got our hands on the thousands of hours of footage, it was a massive challenge — I give so much credit to my editing team. We had an associate editor who had to watch every minute of that, and it’s this massive puzzle and he had to isolate that same six people throughout the day, following the changing of clothes and the disguises.

It would be so hard to exonerate those women without that footage and you can see how it matches with their stories.

How did you piece it together and get people to tell you those stories?

It was a strange film to make in the sense that my two characters were living in jail, in solitary confinement on death row. The central question of the film was the Kim regime, the “Game of Thrones” backstory and why one brother was picked to inherit the throne, and there are geopolitical webs around it. The question was also, ‘Who are these women? Where did they come from?’ We had to go to their families and the people who knew them.

What was the road to distribution and getting the film out?

We knew from the beginning that Hollywood is terrified of the North Korean regime, and understandably so. We know how public the Sony hack was, and I think that had a major chilling factor in Hollywood, and the odds were stacked against us.

I felt afraid of the regime while making it, and that’s fine. I think that feeling is understandable, and I think that feeling from corporations could be hacked in a way that could be devastating to them or their bottom line.

We knew we were probably going to be a scrappy one and difficult to get out into the world because of the threats from the North Korean regime. We are lucky that a company like Greenwich has been brave enough to bring it to the world.

When the film was sold at Sundance, every country bought this film. They were excited to buy this film, but the U.S. was a bumpier road. I think all trails lead back to the Sony hack in a way. I’m just thrilled this is seeing the light of day.

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