A Deft Look at Modern War

Feb 2, 2023

You don’t get very far into “5 Seasons of Revolution” before you realize something is off with one of the documentary’s participants. That person is Susu, a friend of the film’s director (simply credited as “Lina”). Along with Lina, Susu is a member of a secret group of Syrian activist journalists whose efforts to document the country’s revolution and publicize its government’s human rights abuses are chronicled here. Susu’s appearance is uncanny: her hair flickers between dark brown and transparent, her face seems to jump away from her head when she moves, and her skin looks too smooth, as if an Instagram filter has been cranked all the way up on it. As a title card informs us, Susu is a deepfake: a real person who has had her face digitally swapped with someone else’s.
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Deepfaking — which uses machine learning to forge realistic-seeming images — has rightly drawn much scrutiny for its potential to spread misinformation and further undermine people’s already-unstable trust in what they see. But in ‘5 Seasons,’ the controversial technology is genuinely life-saving. Like its director’s mononymous alias, the film’s deepfakes are a means of obscuring the identities of its participants to protect them from intimidation, arrest, torture, and murder. The things Susu, Lina, and their colleagues do in the film — attend anti-government protests and interview survivors of the state’s atrocities — are dangerous acts in an authoritarian police state like Syria, consistently ranked one of the worst places in the world for journalists. In the context of Syria’s still-raging civil war, then, deepfaking’s ability to smudge the line between reality and artificiality becomes a genuine, vital force for good. Because Susu is a central figure in the film, deepfaking also allows for a less distracting — albeit not seamless — viewing experience than the voice distorters and pixelated mosaics usually used to cloak documentary participants’ identities.
If the technology itself isn’t exactly undetectable, it’s a tacit reminder of the danger that journalists like Susu exposed themselves to by reporting on the brutality of the state in the first five years of the war (the period the documentary covers). With every one of the film’s titular chapters come new unspeakable horrors, each making the visual discrepancies that indicate the use of deepfaking more reassuring than unnerving — if it’s still necessary to protect a subject’s identity, we know they must have survived the horrific, protracted conflict they’re documenting. Disturbingly, however, the inverse is also true: the absence of deepfakes elsewhere in the film becomes ominous. As Lina’s colleagues are one by one detained and beaten, shadows darken over every conspicuously unmasked face — did they escape? Or is there a more tragic reason they no longer need anonymity?
The use of deepfakes in ‘5 Seasons’ is just one thread in its fascinating exploration of the double-edged sword that is digital identity in a modern war like Syria’s. Through voiceover, Lina tells us how, in the early days of the conflict, the government moved to stem the tide of popular uprisings by restricting international media and forcing state TV to pretend the protests weren’t happening. In this vacuum, social media became a means to fight back. Activists like Lina moved online, organizing protests and upturning the state’s narrative by sharing damning footage and information on platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
The very act of spectating and documenting these state-censored demonstrations turns Lina and her fellow activists into radical terrorists in the government’s eyes, so with every upload comes an increased threat of violent retribution. The thing that empowers them thus becomes their Achilles heel, too: for example, when one activist, Malaz, is detained and beaten after soldiers find a joke about Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad on his phone, we see Lina and her colleagues spring into action, changing Malaz’s social media passwords, closing his accounts, and deleting his messages, lest his digital footprint leads the state to the group. Just as digital technology can save these activists, ‘5 Seasons’ makes it clear it can also betray them.
To erase her own tracks, Lina “splits up,” inventing several identities and corresponding Facebook accounts to move safely between the war’s frontlines and her home. Among journalists, she becomes “Maya”; among activists, “Maiss”; and among filmmakers, “Layla.” “Lina,” her official identity, is kept clean so that, to the police, she remains an “apolitical” and “unthreatening upper-middle-class girl.”
It’s a gutsy strategy, and it works. When Maya-Maiss-Layla is detained after secret police spot her hidden camera at a demonstration, she reverts to being Lina, a shrewd move that saves her from the torture she can hear being meted out to other prisoners. It must be brain-breaking, being several people at once, but ‘5 Seasons’ leaves our curiosity on this point largely unsatisfied. Not much light is shed on the logistics of Lina’s self-imposed multiple personalities or what it feels like to live a fractured identity; the idea is tantalizingly introduced, only to be dropped in the film’s middle chapters. When Lina is forced to invent a fifth alias at the end of the film — after the war devolves from having two clear sides to a fractured “matrix” of militias backed by foreign powers — the thread is briefly picked up again. Still, these short scenes offer no deeper insight into the psychological impact of constantly flitting between selves.
Fortunately, this frustratingly light treatment is only an anomaly in ‘5 Seasons.’ Far from shying away from other thorny aspects of Lina and her fellow citizen-journalists’ experiences, the film embraces its unique subjectivity head-on. Her voiceover speaks candidly about the guilt of leaving colleagues on the frontline as she returns home to Damascus, the city that disgusts her for its “smug” refusal to join the revolution. We hear sniffles from behind her camera as she shoots the coffin of yet another casualty, who happens to be a beloved colleague this time. As protests morph into outright civil war between the state’s military, the Free Syrian Army, and steadily multiplying factions, intimately shot handheld footage documents the growing ideological schism between the group — some preferring pacifist methods of rebellion, others taking a more mixed view. Ground down by years of personal losses and despair at the increasing futility of protest, the group’s conviction begins to dissolve.
Amidst the carnage, Lina stands not just as a vital voice documenting the brutality of war but also as a heartbroken citizen and increasingly hopeless journalist, as inextricably entangled in the conflict’s spirit-crushing effects as the survivors she interviews. Her deft blending of all these viewpoints is where the power of ‘5 Seasons’ lies. Even if the film doesn’t plumb every depth, the candor of Lina and her brave colleagues means there is still plenty of insight to be gleaned. That ‘5 Seasons’ also illuminates the complex potential of technology — to empower, betray, reveal, and conceal — only makes it all the more compelling. [A-]
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