In this France 5 documentary on Iran, faces were generated by AI, its director explains why

Sarah is the main witness in the documentary “We, youth(s) of Iran”, broadcast on France 5. Her face was modified using artificial intelligence.
© Elephant Doc/ Chrysalis Production Sarah is the main witness in the documentary “We, youth(s) of Iran”, broadcast on France 5. Her face was modified using artificial intelligence.

© Elephant Doc/ Chrysalis Production

Sarah is the main witness in the documentary “We, youth(s) of Iran”, broadcast on France 5. Her face was modified using artificial intelligence.

TELEVISION – When she appears in front of the camera, Sarah is a young girl like any other. She tries on a black hat to match her down jacket, then another blue one, fixes her blonde hair that sticks out, looking at herself in the reflection of the lens. In reality, that face you see in the documentary We, the youth of Iran, broadcast this Sunday, April 21 at 9:05 p.m. on France 5, is not really Sarah’s. It was created by artificial intelligence (AI).

Like his own, the true features of around ten witnesses interviewed were modified using this technique, which you can see a preview of below. A way of protecting them by anonymizing them, while leaving a face for this generation which, when it takes the risk of denouncing or criticizing the regime of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, must do so in hiding.

At the end of 2022, the death of Mahsa Amini in Iran, arrested by the moral police for non-compliance with the strict Islamic dress code, triggered a wave of violently repressed protests in the country. According to the UN, “no less than 551 demonstrators were killed by security forces” – Iran assures that there were half as many. Thousands of demonstrators were “arbitrarily detained or unjustly prosecuted”believes Amnesty International, which also denounces “enforced disappearances, torture and other forms of ill-treatment” at work in the Islamic Republic. At least 853 executions in prisons were recorded in 2023 according to the NGO, an increase of 48% compared to 2022.

“Anonymize”but not “aestheticize”

To safely collect the precious words of the young heirs of this movement, director Solène Chalvon-Fioriti could have simply blurred them. But she wanted to show “a face, humanity, otherness, expressions”. His documentary, the first in France to use artificial intelligence on faces, was inspired by the use of AI in the American documentary Welcome to Chechnyareleased in 2020, which recounts the persecution of LGBTQ+ people in this region of the Russian Caucasus.

“We reveal people without revealing them completely. It’s about anonymizing, but not aestheticizing”, insists the director. Some “fake” faces look stunning while others move less naturally, and some are very briefly blurred when there is too much movement. “We purposely kept all these imperfections which allow, beyond the signage [un panneau alertant sur l’utilisation de l’IA apparaît à chaque visage modifié, ndlr]to remind the viewer that we are not confusing them”, explains Solène Chalvon-Fioriti to HuffPost.

The use of this technique – the details of which are kept confidential – was also a question of security. “Today, with facial recognition applications, we can remove light blurs” to reveal the faces, points out the director.

“Take the diet at its own game”

In a country where women’s hair is hidden and their bodies covered, the face is ” policy “. This is what underlines, in the documentary, Afsun Najafi, whose sister Hadis, aged 20, was killed by the police during the protest movement in 2022. “As the government imposes covering clothing and young people can only show their hands and face, they beautify them as much as they can, even through cosmetic surgery”analyzes the young woman, who fled Iran.

“I found it interesting to seize a weapon from the regimeexplains Solène Chalvon-Fioriti: he uses AI to dehumanize people [notamment en fichant les femmes non voilées dans la rue, ndlr], we use it to restore humanity. »

The process also created a form of ” collaboration “ between the director and the witnesses, to whom she presented several “false” faces. “There was a very playful side. They themselves chose their traits », she says. And they chose the most “beautiful”as for “reappropriate the codes of ultra-connected youth” And “take the diet at its own game”.

The faces of these women were modified using artificial intelligence for the documentary “We, youth(s) of Iran” on France 5.
© Elephant Doc/ Chrysalis Production The faces of these women were modified using artificial intelligence for the documentary “We, youth(s) of Iran” on France 5.

© Elephant Doc/ Chrysalis Production

The faces of these women were modified using artificial intelligence for the documentary “We, youth(s) of Iran” on France 5.

At a time when artificial intelligence arouses more fear than hope, and “deep fakes” are synonymous with false information, Solène Chalvon-Fioriti pleads for a “Virtuous AI” as long as it is used “in a perfectly clear contract with the viewer”.

“This will allow people to talk who we can’t hear”, she predicts. Like Sarah, involved in the revolt movement, who we follow in her daily life at university or in her shared accommodation, through images shot by the young woman herself – the director’s two visa applications having been refused. Like Mariam, 22, who openly denounces ” corruption “ of the government and the deprivation of certain freedoms, sitting next to her mother who believes that the “Woman, Life, Liberty” movement was of no use. Like Anahita, 29 years old, loyal to the mullahs’ regime while other young people her age demonstrate.

A mosaic testifying “a form of frustration” faced with the hardening of the regime which managed to extinguish the demonstrations, but also showing that the Republic is “constantly challenged”, according to Solène Chalvon-Fioriti: “and violence can do nothing against freedom of conscience”.

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